The White House has begun its next comprehensive review of the war in Afghanistan. But don't expect it to resolve the political struggle over the course of the war: The review won't examine policy options and won't weigh in on how the war effort should be modified going forward.
The National Security Staff began what they are calling the "annual Afghanistan-Pakistan review" two weeks ago and is now in the "data collection" phase, a senior Obama administration official told reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon. NSS staff went on a 12-day trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Brussels recently to gather data for the review, and reports from various agencies and outposts are due this week. When that step is completed, the second phase of the review will begin. In early December, the White House plans to move to the third and final phase, which will be about organizing its findings. Some of those findings will be shared with Capitol Hill and perhaps the public in the second half of December or early January.
But unlike the last administration Afghanistan policy review, which resulted in Obama's troop surge decision last March, this review team is being told not to make policy recommendations. That work will be left to the National Security Staff (the new name for the National Security Council) to deal with after the review is completed.
"The president defined our task, and that is simply that we are to assess how this approach is working," the official said. "He specified that this is a diagnostic look at the strategy. It is not, on the other hand, prescriptive. That is, we are not in the business of formulating policy alternatives or different courses of action or so forth."
The interagency team will focus on two questions in conducting the review. First: Is the strategy on the right path, and are the resources committed producing the desired results? Secondly, is the pace of those results sufficient to match the timelines that Obama set during his March speech on the war effort?
"Our bywords are ‘path' and ‘pace,'" the official said.
Neither the exact findings of the review, nor details of the metrics used by the administration to measure progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan, will be released to the public. But when pressed, the official described the broad categories of metrics the administration is utilizing.
There are eight general categories of metrics, three focusing on Afghanistan, three focusing on Pakistan, and two focusing on the overall counterterrorism effort, the official said. The sub-metrics will gauge a number of factors, including trends in violence, the degree to which local areas are controlled by the Afghan government , and the quality and quantity of Afghan security forces.
The question of whether Pakistan is making progress on combating insurgents operating inside its borders is a "very fundamental underlying question for the review," the official said. "We do not dispute that there are still safe havens in Pakistan which are fundamentally part of the equation for our campaign in Afghanistan and getting at those safe havens is fundamental to our approach."
The official defended the administration's decision to keep most of the details of the metrics as well as the details of the review and its conclusions out of the public view.
"This is designed to be an inside the administration perspective," the official said. "There will some sharing of findings at the end of the process, but there's no intent now to share internal metrics and measurements, because since we're in an active conflict zone, the degree to which we share these kinds of details could put lives at risk and jeopardize the kind of progress we're trying to generate."
At the end of the review process, the review will compile a list of policy issues that need to be addressed and tee those up for the National Security Staff to deal with in the first six months in 2011. But don't expect the White House to voluntarily share the details of those discussions either, the official warned.
"There's a good deal that we don't intend to make public."
Twenty-nine leading human rights organizations wrote to President Obama on Friday to express their disappointment with his decision last week to waive sanctions against four countries the State Department has identified as using child soldiers.
The human rights and child advocacy community was not consulted before the White House announced its decision on Oct. 25 to waive penalties under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, which was supposed to go into effect last month, for violators Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen. The NGO leaders, along with officials on Capitol Hill, also expressed their unhappiness about the announcement, and their exclusion from the decision making process, in an Oct. 29 conference call with senior administration officials. Today, they backed up their complaints in writing and called on the administration to mitigate the consequences.
"We believe that your waiver undermines the intent of the law and sends an unfortunate message that the administration is not seriously committed to ending the use of child soldiers," the groups wrote to Obama. "By giving a blanket waiver, the administration has also given up the significant leverage that the law provides to influence the child recruitment practices of its military allies."
A secret administration justification memo spelled out the reasons that the White House ultimately decided to forgo the sanctions for each country, explaining why cooperation with these troubled militaries was in the U.S. national interest. But critics countered that these interests could have been maintained without gutting the law.
"We recognize that the United States has a complex set of national interests in each of these countries, including for example, counter-terrorism concerns in Yemen," they wrote. "However, the administration could have accommodated these concerns while also showing that it was taking the Child Soldiers Prevention Act seriously and using its leverage strategically to effectively end the use of child soldiers."
In the administration's conference call reported first on The Cable , the National Security Council senior director Samantha Power argued that staying engaged with these militaries while "naming and shaming" them was actually the most effective way to make progress on the child soldiers issue.
In their letter, the human rights groups rejected that argument. "This approach has been ineffective thus far," they noted. "Continuing existing programs -- as the U.S. has done for years -- without other changes in the approach is unlikely to yield change."
The groups had some specific recommendations for how the administration could mitigate the damage caused by waiving the sanctions. They want the administration to establish benchmarks to gauge whether these troubled militaries are actually making progress on demobilizing child soldiers, publicly commit to not transfer lethal materials to these armies, and start engaging the NGO community and congressional offices about these issues in an organized and transparent manner.
Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch, said the groups are also preparing some specific recommendations for the administration for each of the four countries.
So is the White House dealing well with the NGO groups involved, following last week's botched roll out? "They're certainly paying attention to this issue now," said Becker. "They say this is a priority and we would like to take them at their word."
The letter was signed by the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, the African Faith & Justice Network, the American Federation of Teachers, Amnesty International USA, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Caring for Kaela, Child Protection International, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, the 3D Security Initiative, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Foreign Policy in Focus , the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Human Rights First, Human Rights Program, the University of Minnesota, Human Rights Watch, the International Labor Rights Forum, International Justice Mission, Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, National Consumers League, the Open Society Policy Center, Oxfam America, Pax Christi USA, Physicians for Human Rights, Presbyterian Church USA, the Ramsay Merriam Fund, Refugees International, Resolve, the United Methodist Church, and the General Board of Church & Society.
On a recent trip to Afghanistan, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke got a first-hand taste of why Afghans, and especially the Afghan leadership, are so eager to get rid of private security contractors operating in their country after taking a scary car ride around Kabul against his wishes.
In a briefing with reporters last week, Holbrooke revealed the story of how security contractors in Afghanistan refused to take his orders -- highlighting the problem of outsourcing security functions to private corporations. After recounting the incident, Holbrooke said that he better understood Afghan President Hamid Karzai's concerns about private security contractors. Karzai still plans to kick all private security contractors out of Afghanistan, despite administration efforts to negotiate the details.
Holbrooke related an episode that occurred during a trip to Afghanistan. "I was driving through the street in a vehicle. I was a little bit late to a meeting. There was traffic. The vehicle, which was armored, of course, was careening around in a way I felt very uncomfortable about," Holbrooke said. "And I said to the guy sitting next to the driver, who was cradling a big weapon -- I said, ‘You don't have to drive that way. Slow down.'... And he said to me, 'I don't work for you, sir.' And I said, 'Who do you work for?' And he just was silent again. And I was outraged. I was embarrassed. So I know where President Karzai's coming from on this."
Aid groups in Afghanistan have been scrambling to figure out how to comply with Karzai's August decree that all private security contractors must leave Afghanistan by the end of this year. Some international aid groups are already preparing to shut down projects if their safety can't be assured. The Obama administration has been discussing the decree with Karzai, in the hopes of expanding exemptions for contractors who are protecting U.S. government personnel to cover some other groups, such as those that protect international aid workers, that the United States feels are crucial to success of the international mission.
Those negotiations are being conducted by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Gen. David Petraeus, the U.N. representative Steffan di Mistura, the British Embassy, and the British Department for International Development. Holbrooke supports these negotiations, which have already resulted in the deadline being extended until February, but said he said he personally agrees with the thrust of Karzai's decree.
"Afghanistan is a sovereign country and respect for its sovereignty was necessary," Holbrooke said. "You had tens of thousands of security guys from all sorts of countries wandering around heavily armed, some of them illegal, some of them highly corrupt, some not corrupt, under multiple contracts. You can't have a country in a situation like that. So now, to get it under control and still be able to protect the international aid workers if they need protection, to get it under control without creating different sets of problems is a real challenge."
Karzai will announce the final rules pertaining to his decree on private security contractors in Afghanistan on Nov. 15, after which there will be a 90-day implementation period.
"This will outline the process by which there will be a transition from the current situation, which is intolerable and untenable, to a point where private security companies do not exist or exist only under conditions that the government is comfortable with and that they operate," Holbrooke said.
After tonight's election, the division of power inside the Senate is set to shift dramatically -- and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) could see a huge change in its makeup, with an influx of new, young GOP members and the exit of some top committee Democrats.
If Republicans gain seats in the Senate, as is widely expected, several GOP senators are expected to move off of the Foreign Relations Committee as assignments are reorganized according to new party ratios and new pecking orders of seniority. Several Democratic senators who serve as subcommittee chairmen could also lose their races, further altering the committee's makeup and its agenda.
SFRC is one of the oldest bodies in the Senate, established in 1816 when committees were first invented. As such, it holds an elevated status as what's known as a "Select A" committee, along with Appropriations, Finance, and Armed Services. Each senator can only hold one "Select A" assignment at a time, unless an exemption is granted, as is the case with Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Roger Wicker (R-MS), who all concurrently serve on the Armed Services Committee as well as the Foreign Relations Committee.
It's an open secret on Capitol Hill that of the four "Select A" committees, SFRC is typically considered the least desirable. Although the committee has an aggressive agenda of foreign policy-related legislation, it does not hold much payoff in terms of domestic political benefit or fundraising potential. The panel sets authorizations for State and Foreign ops funding, but appropriators actually dole out the money. The committee's other two functions are to confirm nominees and approve the occasional treaty, such as the New START agreement with Russia.
For all these reasons, several GOP members are looking to leave SFRC when their seniority level rises due to the influx of new Republican senators. Those said to be eyeing the exit door include Sens. Johnny Isaacson (R-GA), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Jim DeMint (R-SC).
"Because the Foreign Relations Committee really doesn't do a lot beyond nominations and the infrequent treaty, Republican members who are junior are going to look to get off that committee and go to other exclusive committees," said one senior GOP senate aides.
Nobody knows for sure who will get to join the committee because the process is so unpredictable and the negotiations are all conducted behind closed doors. But the committee leadership is hoping that the new members come in with the spirit of compromise.
"The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has operated traditionally in a bipartisan manner, taking national security matters beyond politics. We would expect that to continue," said SFRC spokesman Frederick Jones.
Whether that expectation will be shared by the committee's potential incoming members is an open question. GOP Senate candidates have largely focused on domestic matters during their campaigns, and only Delaware GOP candidate Christine O'Donnell, who is not expected to win, has expressed a desire to join SFRC.
But the conservative, anti-administration tendencies of several potential new GOP senators could make the committee's coming debates on issues like Iran, nuclear proliferation, Israel, and foreign aid a whole lot more animated. Potential new members could include candidates Jim Miller (R-AL), John Raese (R-WV), Carly Fiorina (R-CA), or Sharon Angle (R-NV).
For example, Raese has announced his opposition to the New START treaty, while potentially departing committee members Corker and Isaacson voted for it. Angle has been mum on foreign policy other than to say that "that we must do whatever necessary to protect America from terrorism."
"A Senator Angle on foreign relations could be fun," said another GOP Senate aide who is hoping for a committee that takes a more active role opposing President Obama's foreign policy agenda.
There may be big changes on the Democratic side of the committee as well. Sens. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Ted Kaufman (D-DE) are retiring, and Sens. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) are both facing very tough challenges. Dodd and Feingold are the second- and third-ranking Democrats on the committee, respectively, and their departure could change the committee's agenda significantly. Feingold, for example, has pressed for a flexible timetable to bring troops home from Afghanistan, and has been a critic of some of the administration's nuclear civilian agreements and efforts to loosen international export controls.
Boxer, as chairwoman of the subcommittee on international operations and organizations, human rights, democracy, and global women's issues, has championed such bills as the International Violence Against Women Act, which could come up in committee during the post-election lame duck session or next year. Anti-abortion senators are set to oppose parts of the bill that fund organizations that support choice.
Additionally, if the party ratios in the Senate shift as is widely expected, Democrats will have fewer seats on each committee, and some current SFRC members will be forced to step aside. Will Asia subcommittee chair Jim Webb (D-VA) have to give up his seat and serve on only one exclusive committee? What about Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who is active on nuclear issues? He is said to be eyeing the appropriations seat left vacant by departing Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter.
On Nov. 15, when returning and new senators come to Washington, behind-the-scenes negotiations to resolve these issues will commence. The Senate Democratic and Republican leadership will first negotiate and then agree to ratios for all the committees. The leaders will then work with their caucus members to divide up the spoils.
On the GOP side, that means Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), who leads the formal process, will have the most influence. "This is an example of where McConnell actually has a lot of clout," one GOP aide explained. Seniority is important, but it's not the only consideration that the leadership will take into account -- personalities as well as personal interests will also influence their decision making, as with Webb and his experience dealing with Asia. "It's all done senator to senator," the aide explained.
On the Democratic side, the process could take much longer if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) loses his seat, and a leadership fight breaks out between Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Dick Durbin (D-IL). The process could be delayed even further if there are elections still pending due to recounts or run-off elections in three candidate races such as Florida or Alaska.
All of this spells uncertainty for the makeup of SFRC and the path forward for its agenda under the leadership of Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).
"At this point, it's still up in the air who will sit on the committee; it's yet to be determined," said SFRC spokesman Jones.
The Obama administration has been touting its progress in negotiations with Russia over Moscow's bid to join the World Trade Organization, but the White House has no intention of helping Russia overcome the biggest remaining obstacle: Georgia.
National Economic Council Chairman Larry Summers was in Moscow last week, where he announced that "the end is in sight" for U.S. -Russian agreement on outstanding bilateral issues, such as Russia's actions related to intellectual property rights. Summers also explained why Russia's WTO membership is in America's interest.
"The potential of this market for American business is very great... and it's important for the goal President Obama has set for doubling exports over the next five years," he said.
But after Russia has satisfied Washington's concerns on intellectual property protection, poultry issues, etc., it will have to choose whether or not to make concessions to Georgia. The two nations fought a limited war in 2008 and Russia still has troops deployed on Georgian soil to this day.
The Georgians may have been waiting for the Obama administration to approach them with an offer that would entice them to consent to Russia's WTO membership. Any one WTO country can veto Russian accession and Georgia is the leading candidate to do so. Russia may have been waiting for Washington to pressure Georgia to drop their objections. A senior administration official told The Cable that both sides can stop waiting because Washington is not going to get involved.
"This is a bilateral issue between Russia and Georgia, this is not a trilateral issue that we are supposed to solve somehow," the senior administration official said, explaining that the Obama administration has no intention of trying to exert influence on Georgia on this issue and will not offer any carrots or sticks to Tbilisi.
"People somehow think we are going to mediate this between the Russians and the Georgians. That's not our job," the official said.
The Obama administration's position is that Russia should make the first move. It is unlikely that there will be membership for Russia if basic borders and customs issues are not resolved with Georgia, the official said.
"That has to be done before Russia joins the WTO," the official said. "And as it is Russia who is seeking to join the WTO, we would see it as up to them to come up with a way to start negotiations."
So what does Georgia want from Russia? Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri spelled it out in an exclusive interview with The Cable.
"Georgia's support to Russia's WTO membership is conditional. The precondition is fulfillment of obligation taken by Russia in our bilateral accession protocol in 2004 and solving issues of customs administration on the Georgian-Russian border," he said. "Unregulated illegal trade as it takes place now is counter WTO rules. Russia should become member of this rules-based organization but only if it respects trade rules."
Of course, one huge problem is how to define the "Georgian-Russian border." If you are Georgia, that includes the borders between Russia and what the Obama administration calls the "occupied" Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Some experts believe there's a compromise that could square that circle. Damon Wilson, director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council, said there could be some international presence on the Russia-Abkhazia and Russia-South Ossetia border, similar to the arrangement in Transnistria, a disputed territory on the border of Moldova and the Ukraine.
But he agreed with the Obama administration official that the burden to begin resolving Russia-Georgia issues that lie in the way of WTO membership is on Russia, not Georgia.
"Too many people frame this as ‘are the Georgians going to be the spoiler.' That already puts the Georgians in a box," Wilson said. "The issue is, do the Russians want in the WTO or not and if so, what are they going to do?"
The Georgians are taking a reasonable position and are not trying to make a stink out of this, recognizing that their leverage is ultimately limited, he said. But their concerns are valid and represent a real trade concern that needs to be addressed.
"If Russia is going to be a part of this, it can't enter on day one with some sort of exception. The first sign is that the Russians need to come to the table and talk to the Georgians."
Wilson's views represent those of many in the Russia watching community in Washington who wonder if the Obama administration wants Russia to join the WTO more than Russia itself wants to join. After all, in addition to the economic benefits for the United States outlined by Summers, WTO membership for Russia is one deliverable Obama would like to point to as part of his "reset" policy.
"Russians have to want this," said David Kramer, former assistant secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. "Russians have to choose whether they work with the Georgians to solve the problem or whether it's more important for them to hold Georgia up as the obstacle."
Kramer, a frequent critic of the Obama reset policy, said the administration has taken exactly the right approach on this issue by putting the onus back on Russia and Georgia to work it out without U.S. mediation.
"Sure, [the administration] is looking to get some wins on the board for Russia reset, but the Bush administration was doing the same thing. If Bush was in office today, we'd be doing the START treaty and we'd be pushing WTO," Kramer said.
Meanwhile, there's a growing murmur on Capitol Hill that the path toward U.S. support for Russian WTO membership in Congress might not be as assured as the administration might hope. Congress must repeal the 35-year-old Jackson-Vanick law, which was meant to support then Soviet emigrants. The law as currently written prevents the U.S. from granting Russian Permanent Normal Trade Relations status.
"Russia would be under no obligation to comply with its commitments to the US made in bilateral accession negotiations and the US would have no recourse to WTO dispute-resolution mechanisms. Essentially, we would get none of the benefits of having Russia inside the rules-based system if Jackson-Vanik isn't repealed," said Samuel Charap, fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Although the Soviet emigrant issue no longer exists, a Republican-controlled Congress could resist that move due to concerns about Russia on any number of issues.
"When you look at the makeup of what the Congress is likely to look like next week, that's not the most auspicious setting for the administration's argument, so there would have be a serious push by the administration and supporters on the Hill to get this done," a senior GOP Congressional aide said.
Most officials on Capitol Hill and human rights advocates received no warning or explanation prior to the Obama administration's quiet announcement Monday that it would waive sanctions against four countries that forcibly recruit child soldiers. However, an internal State Department document obtained by The Cable sheds light on the reasons behind the Obama administration's decision to pull back on a bill that Barack Obama himself co-sponsored as a senator.
The internal document shows that the administration prepared detailed justifications for its decision to waive sanctions against countries that forcibly recruit child soldiers, arguing that working closely with troubled militaries is the best way to reform them and that U.S. security depends on such relationships. But the administration didn't share those justifications with anyone outside the administration until after the decision had been made.
On Wednesday, after The Cable reported that Obama had decided not to cut off military assistance -- as required under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act -- against Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Yemen, the White House offered only a terse explanation for the decision. Today, we bring you the internal State Department document dated Monday, Oct. 25 (PDF) that lays out the arguments State made in favor of not implementing these sanctions. The document is signed by Obama, but we're told it was prepared by State.
The State recommendation to Obama came over the objections of top officials in its Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) bureau, sources told The Cable, but the Political Military affairs bureau (PM) argued in favor of the waivers. We're also told that the Near Eastern Affairs bureau (NEA) and the Africa bureau (AF) were heavily involved in the discussions although it's unclear what their exact positions were inside the debate.
Hill staffers and child advocacy leaders who were provided the document after Monday's announcement told The Cable they were unsatisfied with both the decision and the explanation.
"We're going to ask for some greater explanation on some of these. To do the waiver on all of the countries certainly caught our attention," said one Democratic Senate aide involved in the issue. "When using American tax money to help governments that use child soldiers, there should be a pretty high bar."
Key Senate offices to watch are those of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), the original sponsors of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. There was broad bipartisan support for the bill when it passed by unanimous voice vote in 2008. Other key co-sponsors at the time included then Sen. Joseph Biden and then-Sen. Obama.
"This was landmark legislation that Obama supported as a senator and now he's undercutting it. It's really a shame," said Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch.
"The basic problem here is that the administration is taking an all-or-nothing approach. There's no doubt that the administration has legitimate interests in these countries. But they should have sought a middle ground that allows them to take the law seriously while still taking our cooperation with these countries seriously," she said.
The justification for each waiver largely tracks what a White House official told us yesterday, but adds new detail and context to the administration's position on the law and on the violator countries, all of which were identified in the State Department's own 2010 Trafficking in Persons report as systematically using underage troops.
For all the countries, the document states that progress on moving these armies away from using child soldiers is ongoing and that the United States vets anyone they work with directly to make sure they are of the proper age.
On Chad, for example, the document states that ongoing military training programs that would be cut if the law was enforced "are critical to training and influencing critical and future Chadian military leaders." Similarly, the document argues that cutting off military cooperation with the DRC would "jeopardize the United States' opportunity to positively affect the negative behavior patterns currently exhibited by the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC)."
In Sudan, ongoing training of the Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA) would be scuttled if the law were enforced, hurting that army's progress just before the South votes on a referendum to split from the North, the document states.
Cooperation with Yemen needs to continue because that government is a key partner in the fight against al Qaeda, the document argues. "[C]utting off assistance would seriously jeopardize the Yemeni government's ability to conduct special operations and counterterrorism missions, and create a dangerous level of in the country and the region," it says.
The Obama administration quietly waived a key section of the law meant to combat the use of child soldiers for four toubled states on Monday, over the objections the State Department's democracy and human rights officials. Today, the White House tells The Cable that they intend to give these countries -- all of whose armed forces use underage troops -- one more year to improve before bringing any penalties to bear.
The NGO community was shocked by the announcement, reported Tuesday by The Cable, that President Obama authorized exemptions from all penalties set to go into effect this year under the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2008. The countries that received waivers were Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen.
The failure of the administration to consult or even warn those groups that had worked hard to pass the law caused unease and concern around the advocacy community Tuesday. Child protection advocates worried that the administration was abandoning the tactic of threatening to cut off military assistance as a means to pressure abusive regimes to stop forcibly recruiting troops under the age of 18.
"This took us totally by surprise and was a complete shock to people who are working in the field," said Jesse Eaves, policy advisor for children in crisis at World Vision, a children-focused humanitarian organization.
On Tuesday evening, a White House official explained to The Cable the reasons for the decision and the details of what it means for U.S. activity in the affected countries. Essentially, the administration decided that it could not ensure that the offending countries would be able to abide by the law in time -- the breach of which would have required Washington to pull funding. In the end, the administration's calculus weighed in favor of continuing to fund several ongoing assistance programs like military training and counterterrorism advising. They decided to give each country at least one more year to implement reforms before sanctions are brought to bear, according to the official.
"This is the first year that sanctions were to take effect and part of our thinking here has been to put countries on notice of these legal provisions that are taking effect for the first time and that progress is going to have to be made on these things if these countries are going to continue to receive assistance," the White House official said.
The official also noted that the Obama administration was keen to preserve their relationships with the governments in question and argued that engaging troubled militaries was the most effective way to encourage the reform the law was designed to bring about.
"We still think it's important to maintain a solid relationship with the governments there to ensure they provide protection to those folks," the official said. "One rationale for continuing the assistance is to help them address the very problem that is the source of the sanctions."
Inside the administration, however, The Cable has learned that there was a heated debate over whether to issue the waivers. Apparently, this debate was held inside the State Department, with the bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) and the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons arguing against blanket exemptions. The bureau of Political and Military Affairs (PM) argued for the exemptions. The PM bureau's argument won the day and the State Department submitted recommendations to the White House, which issued the waivers.
The 2008 Child Soldier Prevention Act was originally sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and wrapped into a larger bill sponsored by then Sen. Joe Biden. Durbin's office was not able to comment by deadline and Biden's office deferred to the White House.
Leading human rights activists involved in the issue were skeptical that letting abusive governments evade sanctions would have the effect of producing reform faster.
"This is the first year it's being enacted, so to waive everyone right out of the gate sends exactly the wrong message," said Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch. "By providing a blanket waiver, the U.S. is really giving up all of its leverage to force them to change their approach to using child soldiers."
She also criticized the official's contention that the abusive countries needed more time to become aware of the law, which was signed in December 2008. It became operative in June 2009 but couldn't go into effect until violator countries were identified in the State Department's 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, which came out in June.
"If the State Department was doing its job, governments would have been well aware two years ago that this process was underway," said Becker.
The 2010 Trafficking in Persons report identified six countries that are systematically employing the use of child soldiers. In addition to the four that Obama waived sanctions on, Burma and Somalia are also implicated. But neither of those countries receive U.S. military assistance that could be cut off as a sanction, according to the law. Therefore, Obama's waivers have the effect of preventing the law from imposing any sanctions at all this year.
The White House official said when the next State Department report comes out in June 2011, there will be another assessment of whether to impose penalties on violator countries. He also hastened to underline that the waivers weren't issued to pave the way for new military sales to any of the countries found to be using child soldiers.
In Chad, the U.S. is engaged in counterterrorism activities but also is working with the government's armed forces to deal with the spillover of refugees from the crisis over the Sudanese border in Darfur. In the DRC, the U.S. is providing training of various types, military advisors, and also military vehicles and spare parts to the Congolese army. Over 33,000 child soldiers have been involved in the decade old civil war there and the country leads the world in the use of underage troops, according to UNICEF.
With regard to Sudan, other sanctions prevent the United States from helping the Khartoum government in the North, but the U.S. is giving military training assistance to the Southern People's Liberation Army, which could end up a national army if the South votes to separate in the January referendum. The SPLA has about 1,200 child soldiers, the official said, adding that cutting off such training would only undermine ongoing reform efforts.
Yemen is a recipient of significant direct U.S. military assistance, having received $155 million in fiscal 2010 with a possible $1.2 billion coming over the next five years. Yemen is also a much needed ally for counterterrorism operations. The government is engaged in a bloody fight with al Qaeda (among other separatist and terrorist groups), and estimates put the ratio of child soldiers among all the groups there at more than half. Nevertheless, "the president believes there are profound equities with Yemen in terms of counterterrorism that we need to continue to work on," the official told The Cable.
Several outside experts pointed out the existing law already contains an exemption that would permit the U.S. government to sanction abuser countries while still providing assistance that "will directly support professionalization of the military."
"This exception gives the U.S. government very wide berth to continue to provide assistance to bring these militaries more in line with the American image of what their military should look like," said Rachel Stohl, Associate Fellow at the Washington office of Chatham House, a U.K.-based think tank. "The law allows for professionalization of these militaries, so these waivers are really disappointing and add insult to injury."
AFP / Getty images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departed Wednesday morning on her sixth trip to Asia, where she will visit seven countries over 13 days and meet with scores of officials and other regional actors. The highlights of the trip will be Clinton's participation in the East Asia Summit in Hanoi and a meeting with her Chinese Foreign Ministry counterpart on Hainan Island, made infamous by the April 2001 diplomatic tussle over the crash landing of a U.S. surveillance plane.
"It's a very complicated and, frankly, lengthy trip," Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters Tuesday. "At every stop, the Secretary will highlight both political and economic interactions, a desire to promote U.S. exports and see a more forward engagement on economic matters."
Wednesday morning, Clinton departed Washington and headed to Hawaii, where she will first meet with military officials including Pacific Fleet Chief of Staff Rear Adm. Joseph Walsh and Adm. Robert Willard, the head of Pacific Command. Following that she will have what Campbell called a "substantial, intense interaction" with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara that will cover "all aspects of our bilateral relationship."
Thursday, Clinton will give a "major address" on U.S. strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region at the East West Center. In addition to setting the stage for Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington (we're hearing January), the G-20 meetings next month in Seoul, and the APEC meeting next year in Japan, Clinton's speech will explain that "at the economic level, 2011 is emerging as a very consequential, in many respects make-or-break, year for the United States," Campbell said. Following that, Clinton will stop in Guam to visit U.S. troops.
On Friday Oct. 29, Clinton goes to Hanoi, where the United States is joining for the first time the East Asia Summit, with an eye toward membership in the near future. On Saturday, she will make a presentation there as "a guest of the chair." There are several bilateral meetings planned, including a conversation with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. She will also participate in the Lower Mekong Initiative meeting and meet with Indian and Russian interlocutors, Campbell said.
Sometime during her stay in Vietnam, Clinton will take a quick trip to Hainan Island, China, to meet with State Counselor Dai Bingguo. "At that session, we will review the various issues in the U.S.-China relationship, make sure that we're making adequate preparations for both the upcoming G-20 meeting, APEC, and particularly for the session that will take place in January when Hu Jintao will visit the United States, or in early part of 2011," Campbell said.
On Saturday Oct. 30, she moves on to Siem Reap, Cambodia. She will visit Angkor Wat on Sunday and meet King Norodom Simahoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh on Monday. Clinton will then head to Malaysia on to meet with Prime Minister Najib Razak and his cabinet. "I think you will see the flourishing U.S.-Malaysian relationship on full display," Campbell predicted. This will be Clinton's first visit to both countries as secretary of state.
On Wednesday, Nov. 3, the team goes Papua New Guinea to meet Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare and other senior government officials, women leaders, and environmental experts. The next stop is New Zealand, where Clinton will meet with senior government officials, including Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Minister Murray McCull. There the two sides will announce the so-called Wellington Declaration, "which will underscore our desire to see U.S.-New Zealand relations return to a significance in terms of coordination on a range of issues," said Campbell.
On Saturday, Nov. 6, Clinton will travel to Australia to join Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, and Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith in Melbourne for the 25th anniversary of the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) to discuss regional and global security issues. Secretary Clinton will also meet with Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
She returns to Washington Monday, Nov. 8, with a final stop in American Samoa.
"We often talk about stepping up our game in the Asian Pacific region. In that formulation, the A gets a lot more attention than the P, the Pacific. You will note on this particular trip that the Secretary will be stopping in three Pacific islands," Campbell said. "This will be the longest trip of her tenure to date."
As the administration attempts a full-court diplomatic press in Sudan in the final stretch before the January referendum on splitting the country, Congress is also ramping up its involvement in the issue, with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) leading the effort.
Kerry is on his way to Sudan now and will be there throughout the weekend, where he will hold high-level meetings with government officials representing both the North and South in Khartoum and Juba. Kerry previously traveled to Khartoum and Darfur in April 2009.
"Sudan is at a pivotal moment. Every reliable source indicates that Southern Sudan will vote for separation, dividing Africa's largest country and taking with it some 80 percent of known Sudanese oil reserves," Kerry said in a statement. "The Sudanese in the North and the South must seize this moment and address the difficult issues that could seriously disrupt the fulfillment of the landmark Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which included provision for the referendum, and lead to unnecessary violence. America must help North and South Sudan find a peaceful path forward."
Last month, Kerry introduced the Sudan Peace and Stability Act of 2010, which calls for the U.S. government to provide increased aid to southern Sudan, develop contingency planning in case violence breaks out, review existing sanctions if the country splits into two, appoint a full-time senior official to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and develop a multi-year strategy for helping end the Darfur tragedy.
In an op-ed last month, Kerry clearly stated his position that the January referendum can't be delayed, as some officials in the North are now saying is necessary.
"The deadline for the Southern referendum promised in the peace agreement, January 9, 2011, is not negotiable," he wrote. "But exactly how the North and South will simultaneously separate while remaining interconnected must be."
Kerry has not staked out a clear position in the Obama administration's long-running internal debate on how tough the United States should be on President Omar al-Bashir's government, which continues to propagate atrocities in the run up to the poll. The administration has promised to employ both incentives and pressures on Bashir, but officials are divided over how to balance these policy tools.
For anyone interested in the administration's latest thinking on Sudan, there will be a briefing at the State Department's Foreign Press Center Friday morning with Special Envoy Scott Gration, Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson (Hey-oh!), and NSC Senior Director Samantha Power.
In a rousing 30-minute speech Wednesday night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implored attendees at the annual gala for the American Task Force on Palestine not to give up on the struggling Middle East peace process, despite past, current, and future obstacles.
Hosted by ATFP President Ziad Asali, the event was packed with officials, experts, and influence makers involved with the region. The four honorees of the night were Retired Col. Peter Mansoor, renowned poet Naomi Shihab Nye, playwright Betty Shamieh, and Booz Allen Hamilton's Ghassan Salameh. Other notables figures in attendance included Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud and Sharif El-Gamal, the developer of the Park 51 Muslim Community Center. Palestinian-American comedienne Maysoon Zayid was also a hit.
All attendees we spoke to praised Clinton's speech as a fair and balanced (no pun intended) assessment of developments in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and an impassioned plea for both sides in the conflict to redouble their efforts to reach a negotiated and permanent end to the conflict. "She could have given the same exact speech to AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]," said one very satisfied attendee.
Of course, Clinton didn't get into the details of the ongoing negotiations to try to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stay engaged in the direct talks they started last month. But she touched on almost every other issue related to the situation.
Here are some key excerpts:
On the current impasse in the peace talks:
We have no illusions about the difficulty of resolving the final status issues of borders and security, settlements and refugees, of Jerusalem and water. And it's no secret that we are in a difficult period. When President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu came to Washington last month to re-launch direct negotiations, we knew there would be setbacks and struggles.Our position on settlements is well-known and has not changed. And our determination to encourage the parties to continue talking has not wavered.
I cannot stand here tonight and tell you there is some magic formula that I have discovered that will break through the current impasse. But I can tell you we are working every day, sometimes every hour, to create the conditions for negotiations to continue and succeed. We are urging both sides to avoid any actions that would undermine trust or prejudice the outcomes of the talks. Senator Mitchell will soon return to the region for further consultations. We have not given up and neither have President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu.
On the value of the two state solution for Palestinians:
For Palestinians, a two-state solution would mean an independent, viable, and sovereign state of their and your own; the freedom to travel, to do business, and govern themselves. Palestinians would have the right to chart their own destinies at last. The indignity of occupation would end and a new era of opportunity, promise, and justice would begin... There is no substitute for face-to-face discussion and, ultimately, for an agreement that leads to a just and lasting peace. That is the only path that will lead to the fulfillment of the Palestinian national aspirations and the necessary outcome of two states for two peoples.
On what the two states should look like:
We remain convinced that if they persevere with negotiations, the parties can agree on an outcome that ends the conflict; reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps and Israel's goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israel's security requirements. This will resolve all the core issues and, as President Abbas said the other day, end all historical claims.
On seeing past the false choices of the conflict:
Being pro-Palestinian does not mean you must reject Israel's right to exist. And being pro-Israel does not mean you must deny the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. The path to security and dignity for both peoples lies in negotiations that result in two states living side by side in peace and prosperity, and a comprehensive peace in the entire region.+
On the need for more money for the Palestinian Authority:
The Palestinian Authority needs a larger, steadier, and more predictable source of financial support. The United States is proud to be the Palestinian Authority's largest donor. The European Union has stepped up as well. But the broader international community, including many Arab states, can and should provide more financial support. It takes far more than commitments and plans to support making the State of Palestine a reality. And in fact, as the Palestinian economy has increased, the need for future assistance has decreased, but there is still a gap and that gap has to be filled.
On her wish to increase economic activity in Gaza:
Now, we still need many more steps from Israel to enable more economic activity in Gaza, including exports that bolster legitimate business enterprises. Our goal is to support sustainable economic growth in Gaza, and it's a little-known fact that the Palestinian Authority is the principal financial supporter of Gaza. The people in Gaza are dependent upon the Palestinian Authority, which is another reason why the increase in economic activity in the West Bank is not only good for those who live in the West Bank, but those who live in Gaza as well.
On the Obama administration's commitment to seeing it through:
This is not easy. If it were, anybody could have done it already. We've had leaders who have given their lives to this work, and now we have a moment in time that we must seize. I urge you to help lead the way. And I promise you this: The Obama administration will not turn our backs on either the people of Palestine or Israel. We will continue working for and, God willing, achieving the just, lasting, and comprehensive peace that has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy for years.
Dozens of U.S. and Pakistani officials are meeting this week at the State Department in 13 different working groups spanning all elements of the U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue, but the real action is in a few, select side meetings, where participants tell The Cable that the Obama team is taking a markedly tougher tone with the Pakistanis than before.
One key meeting Wednesday afternoon was between National Security Advisor in-waiting Tom Donilon and what's known as the "core" group of Pakistani officials: Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, and Ambassador Husain Haqqani.
President Barack Obama dropped in on that meeting and stayed for 50 minutes, according to an official who was there, and personally delivered the tough love message that other top administration officials have been communicating since the Pakistani delegation arrived. Obama also expressed support for Pakistan's democracy and announced he would invite Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to the White House in the near future.
Earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped in unannounced on another meeting between Special Representative Richard Holbrooke and Kayani. She delivered the message that Washington's patience is wearing thin with Pakistan's ongoing reluctance to take a more aggressive stance against militant groups operating from Pakistan over the Afghan border. A similar message was delivered to Kayani in another high-level side meeting Wednesday morning at the Pentagon, hosted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, two senior government sources said.
The message being delivered to Pakistan throughout the week by the Obama team is that its effort to convince Pakistan to more aggressively combat groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba will now consist of both carrots and sticks. But this means that the U.S. administration must find a way incentivize both the Pakistani civilian and military leadership, which have differing agendas and capabilities.
"The Obama side is calculating that Pakistan's military can deliver on subjects important to the U.S. but doesn't want to, while the civilian leadership in Pakistan wants to, but isn't able," said one high-level participant who spoke with The Cable in between sessions.
The carrots are clear. A State Department official confirmed to The Cable that the two sides will formally announce on Friday a new $2 billion military aid package for Pakistan, focusing mostly on items that can be used for counterterrorism. Unspecified amounts of new funding for the reconstruction effort related to the Pakistani flood disaster are also on the table. In exchange, the United States not only wants increased Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan and Baluchistan, but also increased operational flexibility for U.S. special forces operating inside Pakistan's borders.
The sticks are less clear. Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad argued in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday that the Obama administration should threaten to take down terrorist havens in Pakistan, without Islamabad's consent if necessary. The Carnegie Endowment's Ashley Tellis wrote that the United States should condition aid to Pakistan on increased cooperation and even consider throwing more support toward India's role in Afghanistan, an idea the Pakistanis despise.
The timing of these op-eds and the change in the Obama administration's tone is not being seen by many as a coincidence.
The Pakistanis believe that their extensive efforts to expand military operations in South Waziristan don't get enough recognition in Washington. They also say privately that whatever incentives the United States is offering are not enough to compensate for the huge political and security risks that would come with a full-on assault on insurgent groups they have tacitly supported for decades.
Hanging over the whole discussion are reports that the United States is supporting and even providing escorts for the reconciliation talks in Kabul between the Afghan government, led by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and senior Taliban officials. The New York Times reported Wednesday that these talks were going on without the approval or involvement of the Pakistani government, ostensibly to prevent elements of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from moving to thwart them.
"Pakistan is still resisting [moving on groups in North Waziristan] because it still hasn't fully finished with its ongoing operations [in South Waziristan] and also because it doesn't know what will happen with the talks with the Taliban and would much rather not antagonize the Haqqani network at this juncture," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.
Nawaz noted that the Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan has now reached the third set of meetings, and that there is more pressure to show concrete results to validate the need for such a high-level format. "I hope there will be some clarity on what the objectives are on both sides and also some clarity on red lines so we don't have to relive this movie again and again," he said.
Nawaz also predicted that another point of contention will permeate the chatter in the hallways between Pakistani and American interlocutors -- Pakistan's desire to have Obama visit sometime soon.
"The big underlying issue that won't be on the agenda but will probably be discussed is President Obama's upcoming visit to India and that he won't be coming to Pakistan," he said. "It will point to the imbalance in the relationship."
In a read out, the White House said that Obama has committed to visit Pakistan some time in 2011.
Qureshi, Holbrooke, and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah will talk about all these issues at a joint Brookings/ Asia Society event Wednesday evening.
The Obama administration is ignoring, and thereby enabling, the Russian government's gross abuse of human rights and its gutting of the country's democracy, according to Russia's former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.
"We have no democracy at all. We don't have any future of a democratic state. Everything has been lost, everything has been taken from the people by the authorities," Kasyanov said in a wide ranging interview with Foreign Policy. "The power has replaced all institutions ... like Parliament, like independent judiciary, like free media, etc. That's already obvious for everyone."
The former Russian head of government, who was ousted by current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2004, is on a mission this week to send a two-fold message to U.S.-based Russia watchers: that the upcoming elections next year in Russia will not be free and fair, and that the "reset" policy of the Obama administration has wrongly caused the United States to abandon its role as a vocal critic of Russian democratic and human rights abuses.
"We would like our friends in the West, in Europe and the United States, those who are interested in a democratic Russia... we would like these friends just to open their mouths," Kasyanov said, explaining that he will meet with academics and experts at the German Marshall Fund, the Council on Foreign Relations, Columbia University, and other places. He neither sought nor was granted any meetings with U.S. government officials.
Kasyanov said that he supports the substantive aspects of President Obama's reset policy, such as cooperation on non-proliferation, but that a parallel track should be established to simultaneously exert pressure on Russian leadership to adhere to basic standards when it comes to human rights and freedom of expression.
"I would wish the reset process would become a little bit more principled, rather than closing its eyes to everything that's going on Russia in the sphere of public life and in the sphere of civil society," he said. "You shouldn't just change your principles, the values your government is standing on."
He said that U.S. diplomats at various levels of the Obama administration are ignoring negative trends in Russia in the hope of avoiding even minor confrontations with the Kremlin that might upset the warming of bilateral ties.
"They just don't criticize anything, they don't produce any reports on any unacceptable developments... It's not principled, now it looks like the administration closes it eyes on anything that's going on in Russia," he said.
Right now, independent organizations are not allowed to participate in elections and virtually no new political group has been allowed to register itself as a recognized entity since 2004, according to Kasyanov. There is undue pressure on Russian non-governmental groups, such the arrest and trial of organizers who displayed a controversial art exhibit at the Moscow's Andrei Sakharov Community Center, a case that is now being referred to the European Court of Human Rights.
France and Germany are meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on such issues, but they are operating under the illusion that there could be some significant break between him and Putin on such issues, according to Kasyanov.
"What we need is just general support from the West... We need moral support," he said. "Right now, [Russian citizens] feel that Americans have just given up on Russia, that they are not interested at all."
Kasyanov dismissed the working group on human rights being led by the NSC's Mike McFaul and the Kremlin's Vladislav Surkov. McFaul explained the Obama administration's approach to Russian human rights in October 2009, saying, "We came to a conclusion that we need a reset in this respect too and we should give up the old approach that had been troubling Russian-American partnership."
"This Commission blah blah blah discussing human rights, that's imitation, that is not useful operation. That shows to Russians that the U.S. government has chosen a different path, not human rights and democracy. It's absolutely the wrong thing to do," Kasyanov said.
As for his take on the relationship between Medvedev and Putin, who some see as increasingly divergent on key issues, he explained, "Their relations are very simple, 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, he said, "I wouldn't say ‘run,' just step in."
UPDATE: A State Department officials confirms that Kasyanov was offered a meeting with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Dan Russel, but that the meeting didn't happen due to scheduling issues.
VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images
The increasingly bitter Illinois Senate campaign between Republican Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) and the Democratic contender, Alexi Giannoulias, spilled over into foreign policy this week, as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Howard Berman (D-CA) accused Kirk of exaggerating his role in crafting the Iran sanctions law. But who's really spinning the history of the bill for political gain?
Alluding to Kirk's previous misrepresentations about his military service, the Chicago Sun Times broke the story Monday with an article entitled, "Another Mark Kirk 'exaggeration'?" complete with a video of Kirk claiming credit for being a driving force behind what eventually became the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, which President Obama signed into law in July.
"The Iran Sanctions Bill, it was originally Kirk-Andrews, but if you were going to move it, that means you need to adjust to the power of the House. This legislation eventually became Howard Berman's legislation," Kirk told the Sun Times.
The article then quoted Berman saying that his bill calling for petroleum sanctions against Iran had nothing to do with Kirk's previous bill calling for the exact same thing. "We didn't even look at his legislation at the time. Our bill did so much more and went so far beyond his bill, I would have to put it in the context of an exaggeration," Berman said.
Giannoulias, who enjoys Berman's support, called Kirk's claim that his bill was the framework for Berman's bill "egregious" and demanded an explanation.
But according to lawmakers, Congressional staffers, and outside groups who worked closely on the legislation, Kirk was in fact a key advocate for over four years of using gasoline and refined petroleum restrictions to pressure Iran to make concessions regarding its nuclear program.
In fact, Berman worked so closely with Kirk and others on the idea that media reports at the time acknowledged that Berman's Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, introduced in April 2009, borrowed language from related legislation introduced earlier by Kirk and Rep. Brad Sherman.
Even Democratic Congressional staffers gave Kirk credit for leading on the idea of petroleum sanction for Iran. They said that Berman's bill was clearly built off of Kirk's work, and criticized Berman for politicizing such a sensitive foreign policy issue.
"On this particular issue, Kirk has been a leader, if not the leader. When you talk about Iran petroleum sanctions, you talk about Mark Kirk," said one Democratic Hill staffer who worked on the bill.
"I'm all for a Democrat winning that seat, but this is not the way to do it," the staffer said. "It hurts our standing as Democrats in the pro-Israel community, because when you go to the pro-Israel community and say to them that Kirk didn't play a leading role, it just makes it hard to believe the next statement that comes out of our mouths."
Others who followed the progression of the Iran sanctions legislation closely also credited Kirk with a long history of leadership on this issue.
"There's no question that Mark Kirk was one of the first, if not the first member of Congress to advocate restricting the flow of gasoline to Iran as a way of pressuring Iran on its nuclear program," said Josh Block, who was the chief spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which was intimately involved in the bill's legislative journey.
Block, who now runs a strategic communications firm with Democratic consultant Lanny Davis, said that, after years of building momentum on various versions of Kirk's proposal, the decision was made to transfer ownership of the bill to Berman in order to allow it to garner a vote and pass with leadership support.
"There was a progression of bills that all did virtually identical things," Block said, explaining that this is a normal and commonplace legislative strategy and that Berman does deserve credit for aiding in the final push.
Kirk started his formal advocacy for the petroleum sanctions idea in 2005, when he founded the Iran Working Group, a congressional group that gathered information on sanctions options. In June 2005, he and Rep. Rob Andrews first introduced a resolution calling for restrictions of gasoline to Iran (H.Con.Res.177). In June 2006, they introduced that resolution again (H.Con.Res.425).
In June 2007, Kirk and Andrews introduced a more comprehensive bill, called the Iran Sanctions Enhancement Act, which included restrictions on the importation of refined petroleum (H.R. 2880). In April 2009, after Obama took office, Andrews got cold feet so Kirk moved forward with Sherman and introduced the Iran Diplomatic Enhancement Act (H.R. 1985).
When Berman introduced his Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act at the end of April 2009, its original cosponsors included Kirk, as well as Andrews, Sherman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and others. When the bill passed the House in December 2009, Berman didn't object when Kirk said on the House floor that he and Andrews were "the two grandfathers of this bill and its policy."
Kirk's staffers point out that Berman has a history of cooperating well with Kirk in non-election years and then turning on him when the campaign starts. For example, Berman stumped for Kirk's opponent when Kirk first ran for an open seat in 2000 and then again endorsed his opponent in 2008. Still, they lament that years of cooperation on Iran have been reduced to a war of words over who gets credit.
"This is a desperate move by a desperate candidate with no foreign policy chops of his own," Kirk spokesman Richard Goldberg said about Giannoulias' efforts to make an issue of the Iran bill. "With no record to stand on, Alexi Giannoulias recruited someone with a history of hyper-partisan behavior just before an election to contradict his own previous statements when the legislation passed and level untruths against a well-established leader on the issue of Iran sanctions."
Berman's office did not respond to requests for comment.
The stalled nomination of Norm Eisen to become ambassador to the Czech Republic is becoming an issue in the U.S.-Czech relationship, according to the State Department.
Eisen, who left his job as White House ethics czar in August, is facing opposition in the Senate from Finance Committee ranking Republican Chuck Grassley (R-IA). As The Cable reported Wednesday, Grassley is leading a bicameral effort to hold Eisen accountable for what Grassley says are misrepresentations Eisen made to Congress regarding the White House firing of Gerald Walpin as Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Cable that the stalled Eisen nomination came up in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's bilateral meeting Wednesday with Czech First Deputy Prime Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who was in town to announce the deployment of more Czech troops to Afghanistan.
"The Czech Republic is understandably concerned about the extended absence of a U.S. ambassador," Crowley said. "His absence does affect our relationship. The Secretary reiterated our commitment to the nomination and hopes that Mr. Eisen will be confirmed in a lame duck session."
Grassley's office hasn't specified what exactly Eisen or the administration could do to encourage him to lift his hold. If he doesn't relent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) would have to file cloture and hold a roll-call vote on the nomination, which is possible but difficult due to the scarcity of floor time during the post-election Senate sessions.
Not all Senators share Grassley's contention that Eisen's role in the Walpin affair remains unsettled. In a June 2009 letter (PDF) to President Obama, Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) wrote that the administration had proved it met the legal requirements for notifying Congress when an inspector general is removed.
Eisen's allies are also circulating this parody newsletter created by Walpin as evidence that his behavior warranted his termination. In the fake newsletter, Walpin wrote satire news announcements that some saw as inappropriate, such as an item "reporting" that former New York Governor Elliott Spitzer was a leading candidate to head the Office of the Inspector General's procurement shop.
"If selected for this important post. I plan to bring a high level of service and satisfaction to the procurement process," Walpin had the fake Spitzer quoted as saying. "My policy is, either vendors put out or get out."
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has a new chairman in Walter Isaacson, and the former CNN and Time magazine chief is calling for even more money for the BBG to combat the public diplomacy efforts of America's "enemies," which he identifies as Iran, Venezuela, Russia, and China.
The BBG, which oversees a $700 million annual budget to run such organizations as the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Free Asia, funds breakthrough reporting in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, but at the same time is facing increased competition from other governments' forays into international broadcasting.
Isaacson said that other countries are stepping up their international broadcasting efforts and that the Congress must allow the U.S. government to do the same.
"We can't allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies," he said. "You've got Russia Today, Iran's Press TV, Venezuela's TeleSUR, and of course, China is launching an international broadcasting 24-hour news channel with correspondents around the world [and has] reportedly set aside six to ten billion [dollars] -- we've to go to Capitol Hill with that number -- to expand their overseas media operations."
Isaacson said that combating internet censorship would be a major focus of the BBG under his leadership and that China and Iran were the prime targets.
"China, Iran, and other countries block democratic impulses using their later technologies, and Beijing has deployed armies of cyber militias to go after their country's cyber dissidents," he said. "The BBG is at the forefront of combating this. Through constant innovation and technical evolution, our engineers are opening up the Internet gateway for audiences in China and Iran."
"We know where we stand in the fight for Internet freedom," Isaacson said. "Wherever there is a firewall, it's our duty to storm it, to denounce it and to circumvent it."
Isaacson was speaking at last week's 60th anniversary celebration for Radio Free Europe, which he credited as contributing to the end of the Cold War. He made it clear the BBG's outlets will stick to reporting the news objectively, even if that conflicts with the foreign policy of the Obama administration.
"It's sometimes said that our international broadcasting is in a difficult position because by law and by tradition it's tasked with two separate missions that might conflict: first of all, covering the news with the highest journalistic standards and secondly, being a part of America's public diplomacy by accurately conveying its policies and values to the world," Isaacson said.
"Let me say to you, my fellow journalists, that I will stress and we will stress the primacy of the first of these missions, our mission of being credible journalists, because in fact, it's the only way to carry out the second mission. You can't do it unless you're credible and telling the truth, and in the end, the truth is on our side."
Pressed by The Cable to explain exactly what that means, especially in light of reports that the Obama administration sought to influence BBG reporting after the disputed Iranian presidential elections, Isaacson promised he wouldn't hesitate to air views that contradict American foreign policy on BBG stations.
He said that the goals of American foreign policy and the objectives of credible journalism overlap about 90 percent of the time -- as for the other 10 percent, a choice must be made.
"I feel it's the role of the BBG to always make the choice on the side of credible journalism, just as you would in the private sector," Isaacson said. "We can never compromise our credibility. And in doing so, that will probably help further the foreign policy interests of the United States. But if it's ever a real conflict, our goal one is to protect our credibility."
UPDATE: Isaacson e-mails in to The Cable to apologize for the remark, while saying that the "enemies" he was referring to were in Afghanistan, not the several countries he mentioned.
"I of course did not mean to refer to, nor do I consider, that Russia, China, and the other countries or news services are enemies of the U.S., and I'm sorry if I gave that impression," he said.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was set to vote yesterday on a bill to drastically expand U.S. government support to end violence against women around the world. Before that could happen, however, there was to be a debate over GOP attempts to add broad new restrictions on government funding for abortions.
But neither the debate nor the vote happened. The meeting was cancelled because too many senators were out campaigning.
"We can't get a quorum [to hold the meeting] because Senator Boxer has a debate, Senator Feingold is not here, and some Republicans have a caucus," Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), told The Cable.
Ironically, Boxer has spoken out forcefully for the legislation, called the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), at past meetings. But her absence Wednesday contributed to a delay that will push consideration of the bill until after the Nov. 2 midterm elections and probably until next year, when the political makeup of the Senate will have changed dramatically.
The legislation would give expansive new authorities to the State Department and the Defense Department to fund all types of organizations that are working to combat violence against women and girls in various countries.
This issue is a key priority of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and it constitutes a rampant problem throughout the world. In Congo, for example, U.N. peacekeepers have been completely unable to stop widespread rape by warring militias.
But the bill cannot come to a vote until committee members debate a Republican amendment prohibiting any organization receiving U.S. government funds from performing or promoting abortions in any way, even with money obtained from other sources.
That is what's been known since 1984 as the "Mexico City Policy," named for the city where President Ronald Reagan first announced it. President Clinton rescinded the policy in 1993, President Bush reinstated it in 2001, and President Obama rescinded it again in 2009.
This time, the man trying to reinstate it is Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), who was planning to offer this amendment to the IVAWA at the SFRC business meeting scheduled for Wednesday. He talked about his amendment in an interview Wednesday with The Cable.
"It's designed to make sure that the numerous NGOs and private charitable entities that are empowered by this act do not pay for or advocate for abortions," Wicker said, adding he didn't know if the amendment would pass.
Democrats currently control the Senate and therefore the committee, so could seemingly vote down Wicker's amendment. Kerry said he had prepared another amendment that would protect the current policy.
But Bob Casey (D-PA), one of the Democrats on the committee, is pro-life and told The Cable that he also has prepared language to add to the bill that's not quite the same as Wicker's but still places new restrictions on abortion funding.
If the bill had been approved by the committee Wednesday, it could have been passed by the full Senate. Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are sponsors of the bill, meaning that even if Casey voted no, Democrats could gather the 60 votes needed to close debate and approve the bill.
But since that is now impossible this year, passing the bill is expected to become even more challenging following the midterm elections, when more Republicans are expected to be in the Senate and on the SFRC. When senators return next year, they may have to make further concessions to Wicker and others on the abortion issue in order to get enough votes. Or they may just abandon their attempts to pass new laws to protect women from violence altogether.
What's clear is that the abortion issue needs to be resolved before the bill can move forward. "Seems to me that we should solve this issue first, because there a lot of good things in this bill that I support," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN).
By not showing up for Wednesday's meeting, pro-choice and pro-women advocates like Boxer and Feingold may have assured that this will not happen.
UPDATE: Committee sources now tell The Cable that Kerry intends to bring up the bill during the November lame duck session after the election. If he is able to do that, Wednesday's delay won't have a negative effect on the progress of the bill, at least as far as the committee is concerned.
As for the full Senate vote, that was never really a possibility before recess anyway, these sources report, because Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has made it clear he will place a hold on the bill unless an offset is found for the money it authorizes, meaning that passage by unanimous consent would be off the table and floor time would be needed for a debate and vote on the bill.
President Obama delivered his second speech at the United Nations Thursday morning, giving a full-throated defense of his first 20 months in office and a sober assessment of the challenges that lie ahead.
He pled for the world to aggressively support the U.S.-led direct peace negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. Specifically, he called on Arab nations to demonstrate their support through changes in policy that could help repair relations between Israel and its neighbors.
"Many in this hall count themselves as friends of the Palestinians. But these pledges must now be supported by deeds," Obama said. "Those who have signed on to the Arab Peace Initiative should seize this opportunity to make it real by taking tangible steps toward the normalization that it promises Israel. Those who speak out for Palestinian self-government should help the Palestinian Authority politically and financially, and - in so doing - help the Palestinians build the institutions of their state. And those who long to see an independent Palestine rise must stop trying to tear Israel down."
Obama also announced that he will add Indonesia, a country to which he has twice cancelled visits, to his Asia trip this November, which will also include stops in India, South Korea, and Japan. Obama meets with leaders from all 10 ASEAN member countries Friday.
Here are some key excerpts:
On the U.S. economy:
I have had no greater focus as President than rescuing our economy from potential catastrophe. And in an age when prosperity is shared, we could not do this alone. So America has joined with nations around the world to spur growth, and the renewed demand that could restart job creation. We are reforming our system of global finance, beginning with Wall Street reform at home, so that a crisis like this never happens again. And we made the G-20 the focal point for international coordination, because in a world where prosperity is more diffuse, we must broaden our circle of cooperation to include emerging economies.
There is much to show for our efforts, even as there is much more work to be done. The global economy has been pulled back from the brink of a depression, and is growing once more. We have resisted protectionism, and are exploring ways to expand trade and commerce among nations. But we cannot - and will not - rest until these seeds of progress grow into a broader prosperity, for all Americans, and for people around the globe.
On the war against Islamic extremists:
While drawing down in Iraq, we have refocused on defeating al Qaeda and denying its affiliates a safe-haven. In Afghanistan, the United States and our allies are pursuing a strategy to break the Taliban's momentum and build the capacity of Afghanistan's government and Security Forces, so that a transition to Afghan responsibility can begin next July. And from South Asia to the Horn of Africa, we are moving toward a more targeted approach- one that strengthens our partners, and dismantles terrorist networks without deploying large American armies.
As part of our efforts on non-proliferation, I offered the Islamic Republic of Iran an extended hand last year, and underscored that it has both rights and responsibilities as a member of the international community. I also said - in this hall - that Iran must be held accountable if it failed to meet those responsibilities. That is what we have done. Iran is the only party to the NPT that cannot demonstrate the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program, and those actions have consequences. Through UN Security Council Resolution 1929, we made it clear that international law is not an empty promise.
Now let me be clear once more: the United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it. But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment, and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program.
On the Middle East peace process:
Now, many are pessimistic about this process. The cynics say that Israelis and Palestinians are too distrustful of each other, and too divided internally, to forge lasting peace. Rejectionists on both sides will try to disrupt the process, with bitter words and with bombs. Some say that the gaps between the parties are too big; the potential for talks to break down is too great; and that after decades of failure, peace is simply not possible.
But consider the alternative. If an agreement is not reached, Palestinians will never know the pride and dignity that comes with their own state. Israelis will never know the certainty and security that comes with sovereign and stable neighbors who are committed to co-existence. The hard realities of demography will take hold. More blood will be shed. This Holy Land will remain a symbol of our differences, instead of our common humanity.
I refuse to accept that future. We all have a choice to make. And each of us must choose the path of peace. That responsibility begins with the parties themselves, who must answer the call of history.
On human rights and democracy:
In times of economic unease, there can also be an anxiety about human rights. Today, as in past times of economic downturn, some put human rights aside for the promise of short term stability, or the false notion that economic growth can come at the expense of freedom. We see leaders abolishing term limits, crackdowns on civil society, and corruption smothering entrepreneurship and good governance. We see democratic reforms deferred indefinitely.
As I said last year, each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its people. Yet experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty - that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments. To put it simply: democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens. And that truth will only grow stronger in a world where the borders between nations are blurred.
It's time for every member state to open its elections to international monitors, and to increase the UN Democracy Fund. It's time to reinvigorate UN peacekeeping, so that missions have the resources necessary to succeed, and so atrocities like sexual violence are prevented and justice is enforced - because neither dignity nor democracy can thrive without basic security. And it's time to make this institution more accountable as well, because the challenges of a new century demand new ways of serving our common interests.
The world that America seeks is not one that we can build on our own. For human rights to reach those who suffer the boot of oppression, we need your voices to speak out. In particular, I appeal to those nations who emerged from tyranny and inspired the world in the second half of the last century - from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to South America. Do not stand idly by when dissidents everywhere are imprisoned and protesters are beaten. Because part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.
President Obama will unveil his administration's new overarching strategy on global development Wednesday in a speech at the United Nations.
"Today, I am announcing our new U.S. Global Development Policy -- the first of its kind by an American administration," Obama will say, according to prepared remarks. "It's rooted in America's enduring commitment to the dignity and potential of every human being. And it outlines our new approach and the new thinking that will guide our overall development efforts."
The president's speech will place global development in the context of his National Security Strategy released in May, which emphasizes the interconnected relationship of security, economics, trade, and health.
"My national security strategy recognizes development as not only a moral imperative, but a strategic and economic imperative," Obama will say. "We've reengaged with multilateral development institutions. And we're rebuilding the United States Agency for International Development as the world's premier development agency. In short, we're making sure that the United States will be a global leader in international development in the 21st century."
The White House was busy laying the groundwork in advance of the president's speech, touting the highlights of what it calls the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development (PPD). A fact sheet provided to reporters laid out the basic ideas of the U.S. strategy, which includes a focus on sustainable outcomes, placing a premium on economic growth, using technological advances to their maximum advantage, being more selective about where to focus efforts, and holding all projects accountable for results.
The White House will not release the full text of this initiative, which was previously known as the Presidential Study Directive on Global Development (PSD-7).
On some specific items of contention, the White House has decided that USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah will not have a permanent seat on the National Security Council, as many in the development community wanted. However, he will be invited to attend its meetings when issues affecting his work are being discussed.
An executive-level Development Policy Committee will be created to oversee all interagency development policy efforts, as was outlined in a leaked copy of a previous draft of the new policy. There will also be a mandated once-every-four-years review of global development strategy, which will be sent to the president.
Obama announced the new policy during the U.N.'s conference on the Millennium Development Goals. "The real significance here is the fact that the President chose to unveil this at the U.N. and in the context of the MDGs," said Peter Yeo, vice president for public policy at the U.N. Foundation. "[I]t shows how closely the administration wants to work with the U.N. and U.N. agencies in implementing them."
Development community leaders reacted to the new policy with cautious optimism and a hope that implementation would go as planned.
"President Obama has delivered a big victory for the world's poor, our national interests, and the movement to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective," said George Ingram, a former senior official at USAID and current co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network. "Now the tough task of implementation begins, and we are ready to work with the Administration to ensure that key reform principles are applied and codified in law, because that is the real way to make this policy one of the President's great legacies."
Deputy National Security Advisor for international economics Michael Froman, in a Friday conference call with reporters, defended the White House's decision not to release the entire PPD. "It's general policy that we can release a detailed summary of it, but as I understand it the policy is not to release the PPD themselves," he said.
Development community leaders were nonetheless disappointed.
"We understand that NSC documents like this aren't normally released in full, but there are pitfalls in this approach," said Greg Adams, director of aid effectiveness at Oxfam America. "The Administration should make sure that enough gets out to not only provide the American people with a clear rationale for the new approach, but also make sure that our partners around the world understand how we plan to change the way we work with them."
On a Thursday conference call with development community leaders to preview the release, one senior administration official mentioned your humble Cable guy while requesting anonymity and asking the participants to hold the information close.
"I know that with this group it's a little unusual to do calls on background and embargoed... not that I think anybody on this line has ever talked to Josh Rogin," the official said.
President Obama travels to New York Wednesday afternoon to attend the U.N. General Assembly and participate in a host of side meetings with the world leaders convening in Manhattan for this week's festivities.
"This year's visit to the U.N. General Assembly comes as we have successfully and dramatically changed our course at the United Nations. We've ended needless American isolation," said U.S. Representative Susan Rice on a conference call with reporters Monday. "We've worked to repair what were some badly frayed relationships and scrapped outdated positions. And in the process, we've built a strong basis for cooperation that advances our security."
Obama's first order of business will be to deliver remarks at the Millennium Development Goals summit at the United Nations. Obama is expected to unveil several aspects of the White House's overall review of global development policy, called the Presidential Study Directive on Global Development (PSD-7). That long awaited document has been completed according to the administration but is not expected to be publicly released at all beyond Obama's remarks and a statement coming later Wednesday.
Obama's remarks "will focus on what the United States is doing in pursuit of achieving the Millennium Development Goals and focus on some of the key initiatives of our development policy writ large," said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes on the conference call.
Obama will address the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday morning, talking about broader American foreign policy goals and the activities of his administration in its first 20 months. The president will concentrate "on issues that are of great concern to the American people, such as our efforts to restart the global economy, to combat al Qaeda, to advance the cause of nonproliferation, and to pursue Middle East peace," Rhodes said.
After his speech, Obama will hold a bilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao before attending a lunch hosted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He will meet briefly on the side of that lunch with Ban and Joseph Deiss, the president of the General Assembly.
Later Thursday, Obama meets with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. "The President is looking forward to visiting Japan, of course, in November, and thinks that this is one of our most important alliances in the world," Rhodes said. Asia observers are watching for news on the escalating China-Japan argument over a Chinese boat captain detained in Japanese waters.
Thursday afternoon, Obama will head over to the Clinton Global Initiative in midtown Manhattan to give introductory remarks for his wife Michelle, who will be delivering a speech there. Thursday evening, Obama hosts a reception at the Natural History Museum.
On Friday, Obama starts off with bilateral meetings with the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and new Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who apparently took time out of his schedule to attend a Shakira concert. A meeting with the interim Kyrgyz president, Roza Otunbayeva, is scheduled for late Friday
Friday lunch will be the setting for Obama's meeting with leaders from all ten ASEAN member countries, where the South China Sea dispute with China and upcoming Burmese elections are expected to be discussed.
After that, Obama attends a high-level meeting on Sudan hosted by Ban, and participants include the chairman of the African Union, Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, and the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir.
"The President decided to participate in this event, which was actually at one point originally intended as a ministerial, because this could not be a more critical time in the life of Sudan and also in the life of international efforts to ensure that these referenda go off on time and peacefully," Samantha Power, the NSC's senior director for multilateral engagement, told reporters.
The months before the planned referendum in January on dividing Sudan into two countries are critical, said Power, who also noted that Obama would be pushing both sides to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and work faster toward preparing for the voting.
"The No. 1 message is with regard to the CPA and the need for rapid implementation. The parties are behind schedule. You're aware of that. Everybody is aware of that," she said, adding that Obama will also speak about the dire humanitarian situation in Darfur.
Rice said Obama will reinforce both incentives and penalties for both sides in order to encourage them to act in good faith.
"We want to make the upside opportunity clear and well understood. At the same time, we've also been clear that if they fail to follow through, that there will be -- as we have always said in the context of our policy -- consequences," she said. "Those might take the form of unilateral and/or multilateral, and we've got a number that are potentially at our disposal."
As the Afghan government counts the votes cast during Saturday's parliamentary elections, the United States is working hard to train the bureaucrats that will run the local and provincial governments that will be crucial to increasing the Afghan government's credibility.
The U.S. mission is based on the goal of handing over swaths of Afghanistan to local governments, which would allow U.S. troops to leave the country. But corruption and mismanagement at all levels of Afghanistan's government is the single largest obstacle to achieving an orderly transition to Afghan control and convincing local citizens to reject the Taliban.
After a series of high-profile spats with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the administration is shifting its anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan to include a greater focus on lower-level officials.
A significant part of this effort consists of a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded program, which gives thousands of Afghan government officials a crash course on governing and anti-corruption techniques. After the program concludes, these officials are then sent out to form the foundation of Afghanistan's civil service.
The U.S. government funds and supports the Afghan Civil Service Institute, the makeshift university in Kabul where bureaucrats are trained, through the Afghan Civil Service Support Program, which was launched last February. The institution, which is Afghan-run but U.S.-supported, has graduated 11,000 sub-national government officials and expects to reach a total of 16,000 by the end of the year. It teaches five basic bureaucratic functions: procurement, strategy and policy, human resources, project management, and finance.
"Getting people competent in a few basic skills... things that make a government function is so critically important," said Alex Thier, USAID's director of the office of Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs in Washington. "You could have the best ministers, but if you don't have anyone at the local level that is making sure that the ministries function, none of that stuff gets done."
Thier describes the program as a crucial aspect in the drive to establish the conditions that will eventually facilitate the departure of U.S. forces.
"If we're talking about stability in Afghanistan and we're talking about creating a minimally competent government, you have to have people with basic skills. After 30 years of civil war, you don't have those people anymore," he said.
But finding competent candidates, and then convincing them to work for the Karzai government or its subsidiaries, is no easy task, said Thier.
"It is not exactly the greatest time in Afghan history to be a civil servant. The government officials are being targeted and it's very difficult to serve in this environment."
The school has a specific curriculum for anti-corruption efforts, but the point of building up the Afghan civil service is so that better governance will reduce the opportunities for corruption altogether.
"Corruption is a very high priority and basic tools to allow for financial management and budget management are essential to that," said Thier.
The recently trained and deployed Afghan bureaucrats are facing their biggest test in the coming weeks. All 250 seats of the Afghanistan's lower house, called the Wolesi Jirga, were up for grabs last weekend.
The election results aren't expected to be final until the end of October -- but don't take that as a problem, a senior administration official said.
"So the election... will actually play out over a series of weeks. And we just want to make clear that that's fully expected."
As for the integrity of the elections themselves, which is already under suspicion, the Obama administration's position is that the ballot had better checks and balances protecting against fraud than the disputed 2009 presidential polls. Nevertheless, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), which vets complaints, has a majority of Karzai-appointed commissioners, raising questions about its objectivity.
"Our sense is that both the [Independent Elections Commission] but also the complaints commission, the ECC, are in manning, leadership and process improvements over the 2009 version," the senior administration official said.
Former President Jimmy Carter may believe that the North Korean regime really wants to rejoin negotiations with the United States, but according to the State Department's top Asia official, North Korea will first have to make nice with South Korea.
In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity between the countries involved in the almost-defunct Six Party Talks, with U.S., South Korean, Chinese, and Japanese negotiators meeting in various configurations. The talks, which were organized in 2003 to confront Pyongyang about its nuclear weapons program, broke down in 2008. After returning from his rescue mission to Pyongyang, where he was completely snubbed by Kim Jong Il, Carter now believes that a resumption of negotiations is within reach, a position that puts him out in front of what most Obama administration officials are willing to say.
In fact, in the wake of the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, the State Department is making it clear they won't get ahead of Seoul in engaging North Korea. Almost all South Korean outreach to North Korea has been halted and the U.S. position is that a thawing of North-South ties must precede any direct engagement from the United States.
"In the current environment given what has just transpired, we think an essential first step needs to be some re-engagement between North and South Korea. And I think that is going to be critical going forward," Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday. "And as we have long held, we also think that it's going to be significant that North Korea again, as we've said in the past, underscore its commitment to fulfill its commitments that it took in 2005."
Campbell was testifying alongside assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs Gen. Wallace "Chip" Gregson and General Walter Sharp, commander of United States Forces Korea.
Following high-level visits to Washington by both Chinese and South Korean officials who deal with the Six Party Talks, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, U.S. Special Envoy Sung Kim, and the National Security Council's Daniel Russell traveled to Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing to get a readout of the current state of play. Campbell traveled last week to Beijing as well, along with National Economic Council Chairman Larry Summers and the NSC's Tom Donilon and Jeffrey Bader.
Carter now not only believes that the North Koreans want to come back to the table; he also argues that "the Chinese are actively promoting the resumption of the six-party talks." Campbell is not so sure.
Following China's reluctance to blame North Korea for the sinking of the Cheonan and difficult negotiations over a presidential statement at the U.N., there is a realization inside the administration that the United States and China are not communicating as well as they should be on the North Korean issue. The recent shuttle diplomacy is meant to address that.
"The truth is that the Cheonan incident, I think, makes clear that China has a very complex calculus that they look at on the Korean Peninsula," Campbell said. "I think there was an appreciation that the United States and China must step up its dialogue on the Korean Peninsula, and we are seeking to do so."
Leading senators on the Armed Services Committee from both parties called on the administration to get tougher with China and harshly criticized the Chinese Communist Party leadership for its recent defense of North Korea's provocations.
"We've heard about stepping up dialogue with China for a long, long time, and it hasn't resulted in anything as far as I'm concerned," said Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). "You say that this event and their failure to take a decent position and response to the attack on the ship, you said complicates their relationship with South Korea. Well, it sure doesn't help their relationship with us as far as I'm concerned... So I think it's totally unacceptable and I think China ought to be told in no uncertain terms that it complicates its relationship not just with South Korea, but with us as well."
Ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) also bristled at Campbell's comment about Chinese commitment to the Six Party Talks.
"Secretary Campbell, one of the reasons why we get a little cynical around here is exemplified by the comment you made about China," he said. "‘Step up its dialogue.' Remarkable statement. The Chinese have not only not helped us with Korea over the years, they have been an obstacle to increased sanctions."
"China's response to North Korea's recent provocations calls into question its willingness to act as a responsible stakeholder in the international system," McCain said.
He also criticized what Campbell identified as the administration's policy of "strategic patience" with North Korea, which basically amounts to not giving in to Pyongyang's saber-rattling or brinksmanship with bribes or concessions, while waiting for serious indications they are willing to negotiate in good faith.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) directed his firepower at Carter, lambasting him for not even mentioning the Cheonan incident in his Washington Post op-ed, which he called "awful.'
"[Carter] fails to mention the Cheonan incident. And that certainly puts in doubt his conclusion that the leadership of North Korea that he spoke to is anxious to reengage again," Lieberman said, noting how out of step Carter's argument was with the administration's stated policy.
"Frankly, I, too, was surprised by the omission of the Cheonan in President Carter's op-ed," Campbell responded.
On Thursday, the Senate confirmed two top officials to the U.S. Agency for International Development, making them the first senior USAID leadership positions to be filled other than Administrator Rajiv Shah.
The officials who were confirmed are Mark Feierstein as assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, and Nisha Desai Biswal as assistant administrator for Asia. They were two of the 28 presidential nominations officially confirmed by the Senate Thursday.
Of the top 12 leadership slots at USAID, only two more officials have even been nominated and nine more slots are currently vacant or being staffed by "acting" officials: Nancy Lindborg, for assistant administrator of USAID's Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Affairs Bureau and Donald K. Steinberg as deputy administrator of USAID. One notable vacancy at USAID is the slot for director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).
Feierstein had previously worked as a principal at the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, and before that served as director of USAID's global elections office. He previously worked in the State Department as special assistant to the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and before that was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Democratic Institute.
Biswal most recently worked as the majority clerk for the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations. Before that, she was director of policy and advocacy at InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international humanitarian and development non-governmental organizations. She has also worked on the professional staff of the House International Relations Committee and has held numerous past positions at USAID, including in the management bureau, the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, and the Office of Transition Initiatives.
As the Obama administration tries to negotiate peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, back here in Washington a group of international figures convened at the Ritz Carlton Tuesday night under the banner of a new group, the "Friends of Israel Initiative."
The new initiative was created by former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, who was the keynote speaker at the Ritz Carlton event last night. The movement, which is based in Europe but is now establishing a presence in Washington and other cities around the globe, is dedicated to combat what members view as the "international campaign to combat the global effort to delegitimize the State of Israel."
The group's board is composed mainly of non-American, non-Jewish, world leaders such as Aznar, former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, Nobel Peace Prize winner Lord William David Trimble, and former president of the Italian Senate Marcello Pera. But they have support from American statesmen as well, including former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton and House Foreign Affairs ranking Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who introduced a Congressional resolution in support of the initiative.
The Cable sat down for a one-on-one interview with Aznar to hear about his vision for the group and his take on the threats to the Western world:
Josh Rogin: Why did you feel the need to create this group?
Jose Maria Aznar: This idea is a consequence of my convictions and the convictions of many different people. We believe in the values of the Western world and we believe that it is necessary to enforce at this moment our way of life, and that the weaknesses of the Western societies, especially in Europe, is a problem for all of us.
For us, Israel is a part of the Western world. Israel is not a country of the Middle East, it's a Western country in the Middle East. Therefore, the interests of Israel are our interests. Israel is a democracy and we have a responsibility to contribute to helping democracies in difficulty. Lastly, there is a very serious situation: the effort to delegitimize Israel and we think it is very dangerous to accept this without a reaction.
JR: How is your initiative different from all other pro-Israel initiatives?
JMA: At one point the question for us was, should we organize a new Jewish lobby, a new Jewish organization? The answer was no. The most important aspect of this idea is that to become a member of the board of this institution it is necessary to be a non-Jew, because what's important is the strategic alliance between Jews and non-Jews. Furthermore, it is not an organization linked to the Israeli government, it's not an organization dependent on the circumstances of the moment. We cannot act in reaction to the crisis in the Middle East because we can say everyday there is crisis in the Middle East. It is necessary to defend the strategic idea. I began in Europe: in Paris, in London, now here in D.C. In the next month I will be in Italy, in Rome, in Spain, in Czech Republic, South America.
JR: What is your view on the relationship between Europe and Israel?
JMA: We are perfectly aware of the situation in Europe regarding the state of Israel. If we defend the values of the West, we can find that the Judeo-Christian tradition is one of the most important values for us. Judeo-Christian values are the same for Jewish people and European Christian people.
What is relevant in this moment is not whether we are Jewish or not Jewish, the problem is to have or know the same strategic concept. And you can explain to the different parts of Europe the situation and why the existence of the state of Israel is so important for our interests. For example, if Israel at one moment disappeared or was attacked as a consequence of threats, the next territory to be confronted directly would be Europe. We share these interests with Israel. It is necessary to explain this to the people, because for the mass media today it is very easy to present things as simply right and wrong, and every day Israel is presented as the wrong option and guilty in all situations.
JR: Can you specify exactly the threats that your group sees as necessary to confront?
JMA: Well, the threat is the delegitimization of the state of Israel, first of all. The threat is the weakness of the European system, the Western system of values. The fear is that one could decide that at this moment Israel is something that is not worth defending, that millions of people are not important, that it's better to reach an agreement with radical Islam.
European weakness in foreign policy is extremely important. Also, this American administration is different; the position of this administration regarding Israel is different than other American administrations. Lastly, look at the region. Look at Iran, it's a very important threat. There is a terrorist threat from Hamas and Hezbollah, negative collusion in the Palestinian side. All these negative perspectives are enough reason for us to act and to react.
JR: Why do you say that the Obama administration is different from other American administrations on this issue?
JMA: I believe that Mr. Obama thinks that he can move the Muslim world and solve the problems of the Muslim world by making speeches. It is not true. Second, the position of the American administration is more or less that they prefer reaching an agreement with [the Muslim world] that defends Israel... but [their] priority is reaching an agreement with [the Muslim world], not to support Israel's government. So, if [their] priority is that, it is necessary to change the Israeli government and provoke a very strong policy against them. This policy is a serious failure.
JR: What do you think about the current Middle East peace talks?
JMA: The position of taking steps in support of conversations is a good step, but in my view, in this moment it's necessary to avoid the question of Israeli settlements because the problem of Israeli settlements is linked with the life and the survival of the Israeli government. If you put the pressure on this point, you eliminate one of the negotiators, and I believe that everybody in Israel is more or less agreed that there is possibility to reach an agreement if the conditions put forth by Israel are respected.
I believe it is necessary to guarantee a Jewish state, it's necessary to guarantee the existence of this state, it's necessary to put an end to the threats of the delegitimization of the state, it's necessary to have a viable Palestinian state, and to recognize that the idea of the Jewish state is absolutely vital. In my view, the problem from the Palestinian side is that some people understand that recognizing the existence of the Jewish state is not good business for some people on the Palestinian side. I think it would be a good business, the right decision for the Palestinian people but not for some elites and Palestinian politicians.
JR: Overall, how goes the Obama administration's leadership in the broader struggle against Islamic extremism, in your view?
JMA: For me, this is a question of will. To have indecision in the government is very bad and maybe, for example, if you look at Afghanistan, it is possible to think things are going well or to think things are going bad. Do you have the will to win or not? Do you want to win? Or do you want to pull out quickly?
If you want to win, please organize and do so. If you want to pull out, please organize and do so. But this is not a good policy to maintain indecision on these questions, because in the end the results are very bad, not only for the interests of the West, but also for the leadership of the United States.
OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama, in a private conference call Wednesday, told an audience of Jewish leaders to discount non-constructive statements made by Israeli and Palestinian leaders as Middle East peace talks move forward, saying that such remarks are all part of the negotiating game.
The groups represented on the call were from across the Jewish religious spectrum: They included the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, the conservative Rabbinical Assembly, the reform Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
Obama implored the rabbis on the call to publicly support the talks, and to try to rally their own people to support the negotiations. The call was timed in advance of the start of the Jewish high holy days, when the Rabbis see the largest turnout of the year among their congregants. Along those lines, he asked them to discount statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when they say things in public that make the talks seem doomed. That's mainly for the local television cameras, Obama said.
"I guarantee you over the next four months, six months, a year, in any given week there's going to be something said by someone in the Palestinian Authority that makes your blood boil and makes you think we can't do this," Obama said, according to a recording of the call provided to The Cable. "We're going to have to work through those things."
He emphasized that he would give the same message to Arab groups, regarding statements by the Israeli government they might find objectionable.
"What you're going to see over the next several months is that at any given moment, either President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu may end up saying certain things for domestic consumption, for their constituencies and so forth, that may not be as reflective of that spirit of compromise we would like to see. Well, that's the nature of these talks," Obama said.
Obama referred directly to statements made by both leaders this week that seemed to show an unbridgeable gap over whether Israel must extend its 10-month partial settlement construction freeze, which expires on Sept. 26. The next round of the talks, to be held in Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem next week, will be the last official round before the deadline.
"There is going to be an immediate set of difficulties surrounding the existing moratorium on settlements," Obama admitted, pointing out the public positions of the two leaders.
"On one hand, you have Prime Minister Netanyahu saying ‘there's no way I can extend it.' There's President Abbas saying ‘this has to be extended for these talks to be effective," Obama said. He maintained that there was a compromise to be struck.
"I am absolutely convinced that both sides want to make this work and both sides are going to be willing to make some difficult concessions," Obama said. He did not specify what a potential compromise would look like.
Overall, Obama told the rabbis that he believed both Netanyahu and Abbas were serious about peace and said the first round of talks last week in Washington exceeded his expectations.
"I am stunned at how cordial and constructive the talks were," he said.
But Obama's main message on the call was a plea to the rabbis to actively support the talks, or at least not to actively undermine them.
He asked the religious leaders to help him promote the talks among Jewish communities both in American and Israel, and "to give these talks a chance and not look for a reason why they won't succeed."
Regarding interfaith relations in the United States and the treatment of Muslim Americans in particular, Obama again asked the rabbis for help. "It is very important for leaders in the Jewish [community] to speak from a deep moral authority in making sure that those Muslim-Americans trying to practice their faith in this country can do so without fear or intimidation," he said.
He did not mention the Park 51 Community Center project by name.
On Iran, Obama argued that the sanctions announced by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and others were having an effect on the regime in Tehran.
"Every assessment that we've seen so far is that the degree of international coordination that's being implied in enforcing these sanctions is unprecedented and the Iranian regime has been shocked by our success," Obama said. He said the Israeli assessment matched his own.
While the peace talks and the Iran threat are not necessarily linked, Obama told the rabbis that resolving Israel's disputes with its neighboring Arab states would increase Iran's isolation.
Obama also delivered a message of urgency regarding the peace talks. "If that window closes, it's going to be hard to reopen for years to come," he said. "We're not going to get that many more opportunities."Obama wished all the rabbis "L'shana Tovah," which means Happy New Year in Hebrew, and "Todah Rabah," which means thank you.
"With you I hope and pray this year will be a year of health and happiness, joy and justice, and ultimately perhaps a year of peace," he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the U.S. to continue building a new security architecture around the world while pledging to keep America at the fore of international relations for the next hundred years.
"After years of war and uncertainty, people are wondering what the future holds, at home and abroad. So let me say it clearly: The United States can, must, and will lead in this new century," she will say Tuesday in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. "For the United States, global leadership is both a responsibility and an unparalleled opportunity."
She uses the argument of American exceptionalism to explain why only the U.S. can meet the diverse challenges of an increasingly unpredictable world facing mounting challenges and increasing instances of natural disasters.
"The world is counting on us. When old adversaries need an honest broker or fundamental freedoms need a champion, people turn to us. When the earth shakes or rivers overflow their banks, when pandemics rage or simmering tensions burst into violence, the world looks to us," she will say.
Clinton will tout administration action on non-proliferation, responding to Iran's nuclear program, engagement with Russia, and work on climate change as examples of the administration's new approach to foreign policy. "After more than a year and a half, we have begun to see the dividends of our strategy. We are advancing America's interests and making progress on some of our most pressing challenges," she will say.
She will also warn that the nation's bleak economic picture has a direct effect on America's ability to promote change and progress around the world. "Today, more than ever, our ability to exercise global leadership depends on building a strong foundation at home. That's why rising debt and crumbling infrastructure pose very real long-term national security threats."
Read the entire speech after the jump:
A Florida group's plan to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11 could hurt the international mission in Afghanistan and put allied troops at risk, the head of NATO said Tuesday.
"I strongly condemn that. I think it's a disrespectful action and in general I really urge people to respect other people's faith and behave respectfully. I think such actions are in strong contradiction with all the values we stand for and fight for," said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "Of course, there is a risk that it may also have a negative impact on the security for our troops."
Rasmussen's comments came just one day after Afghanistan commander Gen. David Petraeus issued a statement criticizing the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, which plans to burn copies of Islam's holy book for 10 reasons they explain on their website.
"It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan," Petraeus said.
Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the head of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, told CNN that the issue was already a hot topic of discussion among Afghans and said, "We very much feel that this can jeopardize the safety of our men and women that are serving over here in the country."
The Associated Press reported that hundreds of Muslims in Kabul have already rioted in protest of the planned Koran burning.
Rasmussen is in Washington to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House Tuesday afternoon. Topping the agenda are metrics for assessing progress in Afghanistan, as well as preparations for the upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon in November.
In a wide-ranging discussion with reporters, Rasmussen expressed guarded optimism about the progress of the war in Afghanistan, where about 40,000 NATO troops are fighting alongside American soldiers and marines.
Rasmussen said he agreed with President Obama's decision to begin the transition of authority over security matters from allied forces to the Afghan government, including troop withdrawals, in July 2011. He said the pace of withdrawals were to be determined by conditions on the ground, and that the goal was to complete the transition by the end of 2014.
"I can tell you when it will begin, I can tell you when it would be completed, but I can't tell you exactly what will be the time differences between these two points," he said about the transition, predicting an announcement regarding the beginning of the transition at the Lisbon conference.
He acknowledged that there is an ongoing process to identify which provinces to transition to Afghan control first, and what metrics to use in judging progress on goals. He said it was premature, however, to say which provinces might be ready first or what specific metrics might be used.
"We will not leave until we have finished our job... A handover doesn't mean an exit," he said. NATO forces will have an ongoing role, which will include the presence of a base in Kabul that will allow them to continue to provide support at some level in perpetuity, he said.
On the ever-puzzling issue about what to do regarding Afghan government corruption, Rasmussen said that the international community must keep up political pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai but said that he believes Karzai is sincere about cooperating with the NATO-led coalition on this issue.
"He realizes that it is a prerequisite for gaining the trust of his own people that he and his government fight corruption determinedly," he said. "I really do believe he will do what it takes."
Rasmussen said the Lisbon conference will address a host of issues, including tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, NATO cooperation on missile defense, and cyber warfare. He also endorsed a NATO missile defense shield and extended an offer to Russia to participate. (Russia has shown little enthusiasm for missile-defense cooperation.)
On nuclear weapons, Rasmussen said that while he shared Obama's goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, for the time being nukes will remain in Europe as part of NATO's posture. He said the conference will not come out with specific numbers for the reductions of nuclear weapons based in Europe.
"We will not give up nuclear capabilities as a central part of our deterrence policy," he said.
The White House is warning that an upcoming summit between the United States and Southeast Asian countries could be perceived as a failure unless the U.S. business community can produce deals to announce at the event, The Cable has learned.
To head off this development, the Obama administration has asked business groups to come up with "deliverables" for the planned summit, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber, which is helping the administration plan for the conference, sent out a note August 26 to its Asia Task Force asking it to search for business deals between American companies and those of member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that could be signed at the conference. The ASEAN region is the fifth-largest market for U.S. exports, and bilateral ASEAN-U.S. trade reached U.S. $176 billion in 2008.
Without some "deliverables" of this kind, "the White House says it may be difficult to get the political support needed for the summit," the Chamber's note said, adding that the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council was also asked to hunt for things to announce.
The White House has not yet determined an exact date or location for the summit, which is intended to follow up on issues raised at the first meeting President Obama held with all 10 ASEAN heads of state last November in Singapore. The summit will likely be scheduled for late September or early October, the Chamber said.
As for location, that depends. "If there are a significant number of deals that can be signed at the U.S-ASEAN Summit then it may be held in Washington. If not, the summit might be held in New York," the Chamber wrote.
Sources confirmed that the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council received the same basic message from the White House. We're also told that there is concern that some heads of state from ASEAN member countries might not attend if the summit is held in New York, feeling the event has more significance if it's held in Washington. Presumably, they believe being in the capital will give them a better chance of scoring meetings with top officials.
So, to recap: If there are not enough deliverables to announce, the White House will move the summit to New York. If the summit moves to New York, ASEAN heads of state won't attend. If ASEAN heads of state don't attend, the benefits of holding the summit at all will decrease even further.
Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the White House's message was nothing unusual.
"The issue here is that business always provides input on deliverables for leaders' meetings but leaders' meetings don't depend on whether there are business deliverables," he said. "The summit is vitally important to support broad U.S. objectives in Southeast Asia and Asia generally."
There are plenty of deliverables slated for the summit, and not just in the business sphere, Bower said. He added that he believed the Chamber's note was probably poorly worded and did not match what he was hearing from the administration about the issue.
The Obama team, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Under Secretary of State Bill Burns, NSC Asia Senior Director Jeffrey Bader, and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, has been active in trying to increase the U.S. diplomatic presence in Southeast Asia.
Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both traveled to East Asia and Southeast Asia, and Obama himself attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Singapore, all signs of high-level attention to the region.
Earlier this month, at a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Vietnam, Clinton inserted the United States into a dispute between China and several Southeast Asian countries over territorial claims in the South China Sea, infuriating Chinese diplomats.
Regardless, some in the U.S. business community think the administration's policy is all show and no substance, and they point to the summit preparations as evidence.
"This request clearly indicates that the ASEAN summit is little more than a stage for the White House to pretend it is both engaging ASEAN and helping industry," said one industry leader who received the Chamber's note. "If ASEAN is important, then the summit is important, regardless of the deals to be signed. If the administration had actually helped with any deals then it wouldn't be putting out a call to industry. It would already know what it had accomplished."
The White House declined to comment on the upcoming summit, and has not publicly issued any details of the timing or location of the summit.
"It is vital to the success of the summit for the administration to complete its planning and issue invitations as soon as possible," said Alexander Feldman, president of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council. "The Council is working closely with the White House to spread awareness of the critical importance of trade with ASEAN to economic growth and job creation in the U.S."
UPDATE: Bower reports that Wednesday morning the White House announced the details of the summit. "The 2nd US-ASEAN Summit will be held on 24 Sept in New York. An extension of the 1st US-ASEAN Summit in Singapore, 2nd summit is scheduled to last 120 minutes, from 1-3pm. The White House has notified ASEAN leaders and now waiting for feedback," Bower said.
Last week, we reported that the GOP is holding up the nomination of Frank Ricciardone to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Today, we bring you the letter from Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explaining his objections to the nomination.
Brownback, who will retire from the Senate at the end of this year, has long been critical of Ricciardone dating back to the nominee's time as ambassador to Egypt during the Bush administration and as one of the key officials chosen to strengthen Iraqi opposition groups in early 2003. Brownback states in his letter that Ricciardone "downplayed" the Bush administration's pro-democracy efforts in Egypt and "did not favor" a strong effort to work with Iraqi opposition groups in the run up to the invasion.
"From the latter days of the Bush administration to today, opposition groups from Africa to the Middle East to Asia have been questioning the U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights. Given these questions, I am not convinced that Ambassador Ricciardone is the right ambassador for Turkey at this time -- despite his extensive diplomatic experience," Brownback wrote.
Brownback also criticized Ricciardone for his work while in Cairo to establish an endowment fund to provide non-military aid to Egypt, which the senator argued would have been a slush fund for the Mubarak government and contributed to the further marginalization of democracy and human rights opposition groups there. The Obama administration is negotiating over the controversial endowment even to this day.
"I believe democracy and human rights should be considered on par with other aspects of our bilateral relationships, but I am not convinced that Ambassador Ricciardone shares that view. I am concerned that the endowment plan will marginalize further discussion about the development of democracy in Egypt," he wrote.
All of this speaks to how Ricciardone would conduct American diplomacy in Turkey, according to Brownback, who alleges that secular Turkish opposition groups are already complaining they don't have good access to current ambassador Jim Jeffrey, who is on his way to take over for Chris Hill in Baghdad.
Brownback is requesting that State provide written answers and assurances on a list of questions ranging from Ricciardone's views on numerous issues to assurances regarding how the State Departmetn will conduct aspects of foreign policy. He also signaled that Turkey's recent decisions to vote against new sanctions on Iran at the U.N. Security Council and harshly criticize Israel in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident will also be part of Ricciardone's confirmation debate, which could resume when Congress returns from recess.
"I am also concerned that we have not fully considered the ramifications of a Turkish tilt toward Iran and away from Israel, and I will give those issues some attention before the Senate reconvenes in September," Brownback wrote.
Full letter after the jump:
As the flood crisis in Pakistan's Swat Valley worsens, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are promising an extended mission to deal with the longer-term effects, the leaders of both organizations said Wednesday.
"Our commitment to Pakistan and the Pakistani people is a long-term, enduring commitment," USAID administrator Rajiv Shah told reporters Wednesday morning. "As part of that, an absolute commitment to protect Pakistani people who are suffering from this tremendous disaster is one way to express the American commitment to Pakistan and the people of Pakistan... The president and the secretary have asked us to be aggressive and coordinated in providing immediate relief, but we will not stop at immediate relief."
The U.S. contribution to the relief effort has already been massive, with the U.S. flying in hundreds of thousands of meals flown in on helicopters and supply planes and bringing water- purification equipment, makeshift bridges, and other emergency supplies into the area.
Over the longer term, Shah said, the United States will help with rebuilding infrastructure and housing, which could take years. "And consistent with the strategic dialogue, we intend to be supportive over that longer time frame," he said. He did not say what resources would be used toward that commitment.
The U.S. is also helping to set up a disease early warning system to help prevent the spread of ailments that could result from the hundreds of thousands of victims living in makeshift or unsanitary housing due to the floods. The U.S. effort, much of which is being coordinated by USAID, will also include standing up field hospitals and restocking clinics from a U.S.-owned warehouse in Dubai.
Shah said that hundred of USAID staff are being mobilized to help with the response and that some of the planning and assessments were being done by the U.S. military in cooperation with the Pakistani government.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking along with Shah, said that disaster relief was part of the new strengthening of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and she touted the strategic dialogue between the two countries.
"We've been working hard over the past year to build a partnership with the people of Pakistan. And this is an essential element of that partnership: reaching out and helping each other in times of need," she said.
Reporters at the briefing couldn't resist asking Clinton about her daughter Chelsea's wedding last weekend."Oh, it was wonderful," she said.
With the Senate Foreign Relations Committee having delayed its vote on President Obama's nuclear treaty with Russia until September, the committee's top Republican is warning that time is of the essence.
Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, told committee members at Tuesday's business meeting that even though the committee could have approved the treaty, allowing it to go to the full Senate, he felt it better to take the time to build more consensus before requiring senators to stake out their positions.
But ranking member Richard Lugar, R-IN, warned that if the treaty stalls, it might be hard to build up momentum again. He also said he had argued internally for holding the committee vote this week to allow Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, to go ahead and reserve precious Senate floor time for treaty consideration in September.
If the committee doesn't vote until September, it's "problematic" to try to get floor time before the next break, Lugar said, meaning that the December "lame duck" post-election session would be where the treaty would get a full Senate debate.
"If not [before the election], then whether it works out in December or not is no longer a matter of parliamentary debate, it's a matter of national security," he said, citing the fact that U.S. inspectors have not been able to verify Russian behavior regarding nuclear weapons deployment since the original START agreement expired late last year. "We ought to vote now and let the chips fall where they may. It's that important."
"The problem of the breakdown of our verification, which lapsed December 5, is very serious and impacts our national security," Lugar said. Members may want to take extra time to consider the treaty, but if they are really concerned about Russian activity, ratifying the treaty is the way to address that, he added.
Kerry implored committee members to take the time over recess to think it over and come back to town ready to vote.
"We currently have no verifiability, no regime in place with Russia," he said. "My hope is that we can do this expeditiously when we come back ... Every senator should be prepared to mark up this resolution of advice and consent on September 15 or 16."
A draft of the resolution will be circulated well before then, Kerry added.
Meanwhile, more fence-sitting senators seem to be signaling that they are getting ready to support New START.
The Cable has been asking every single GOP senator repeatedly to state his or her position on the treaty. Before today, only Lugar and Bob Bennett, R-UT, had indicated support and only James Inhofe, R-OK, and Jim DeMint, R-SC, had said they would oppose it.
Today, The Cable caught up with Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-CT, who had previously said he had not come to a conclusion. He now says he is taking steps to prepare for a yes vote.
"I'm waiting for further action on the modernization of the nuclear weapons program," he said, referring to Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl's ongoing negotiations with the administration over how much money will be made available for nuclear labs and other items.
Lieberman also said when the treaty does come up, he will put forth side documents called "reservations," which can be attached to the treaty to express congressional concerns while still allowing the treaty to go into effect without any changes.
"I may want to submit some reservations or understandings, which will enable me to vote for the treaty," he said.
The Cable also caught up with Senate Armed Services Committee member Jeff Sessions, R-AL, who wouldn't commit but seemed to be leaning toward a no vote.
Sessions said the treaty is not really important, gives too much to the Russians without getting enough in return, and compromises U.S. missile defense.
"It was pretty obvious to me that the administration team was all obsessed with getting it done and signing this treaty as some sort of psychological political statement to the world, and the Russians played us like a Stradivarius," he said. "I'm not buying the argument that this is necessary."
Sessions is most upset that President Obama laid out a goal of moving to a world without nuclear weapons in the first place. "This is such an unwise and incomprehensible policy that it makes everyone uneasy," Sessions said.
Still, Sessions won't say for sure which way he will go. When asked if he agreed with Lugar that time was running out, he said he doesn't have to state his position until a vote comes up.
"The vote's not today," he pointed out.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.