A U.S. government-funded foreign aid organization is considering sending hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to countries whose flawed, corrupt or undemocratic governments should almost certainly be ineligible for the money according to the agency's own internal guidelines.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation, or MCC, is an independent U.S. foreign aid agency dedicated to "advancing American values" by reducing poverty, advancing good governance, and weeding out corruption. But people familiar with the matter say that the MCC -- led by Colorado banker Daniel Yohannes (pictured above, left) -- is seriously contemplating giving money to Sierra Leone and Benin, which fail to meet its "control of corruption" requirements, and Liberia and Morocco, which meet less than half of the organization's 20 requirements for civil liberties, sound economic policies, and other measures. If approved, each country could receive hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. government funding over the next few years.
At least one member of the MCC's eight-person board of directors has argued against giving money to the four countries, but it's not clear if that opposition will be enough to sway the rest of the board, which meets next month to review all of its current and potential projects. This is the first time in the MCC's nine-year history that so many potential recipients of its money have failed to meet the grant requirements. And it comes at a sensitive time for Yohannes; on Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considering his nomination to be America's representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
It's far from a simple issue of bureaucratic infighting. If everything breaks right, the MCC money could give a quartet of poor countries the money they need to build new airports and take other steps to juice their economies. If the MCC bets on the wrong countries, by contrast, huge amounts of American money could disappear into the pockets of corrupt government officials or business leaders.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah both issued statements of condolence following the death of USAID Foreign Service Officer Ragaei Abdelfattah, along with three ISAF soldiers, at the hands of a suicide bomber Thursday in Afghanistan.
"Ragaei's work over the last year was critical to our efforts to support Afghanistan's political, economic, and security transitions and was an example of the highest standards of service," Clinton said, noting that a State Department employee was also injured. "Over the last 15 months -- partnering with local officials -- he worked in eastern Afghanistan to help establish new schools and health clinics, and deliver electricity to the citizens of Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. Ragaei was so committed to our mission and to the people of Afghanistan that he volunteered to serve a second year."
"With the work of people such as Ragaei, the civilian surge we launched in Afghanistan in 2009 has made a tremendous impact, strengthening the capacity of the Afghan Government and laying a foundation for long-term sustainable development. Though we are shocked and saddened by this loss and will miss Ragaei, our efforts will continue," she said.
Shah said in his statement that the death is a testament to the commitment and sacrifice made by aid workers in conflict countries around the world. Ragaei had just begun a voluntary tour in Afghanistan, his second stint there. He had 15 years prior development experience and was working on his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech as well.
"Safety and security is an agency priority for USAID staff on the frontlines of poverty and conflict across the world," said Shah. "Ragaei gave his life in service to our country and our Agency's mission of providing help to those in need and advancing our national security. His sacrifice and the ongoing commitment of our staff in Afghanistan is building on progress from the past decade and helping to make both Afghanistan and America safer."
Ragaei is survived by his two teenage sons and wife.
The Obama administration quietly announced this week that it is scrapping the office of the Global Health Initiative and abandoning plans to move the whole project over to USAID, creating anger and frustration in the non-government organization community.
Following what administration sources described as a knock-down drag-out interagency fight between USAID and CDC over whether the Global Health Initiative, a huge $63 billion project to help the world's poorest announced by President Barack Obama in 2009, would actually be moved to USAID as promised in the State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), the administration has decided to forgo what the QDDR directed and stop trying to consolidate the leadership of the multi-billion dollar program at USAID.
"As a result of our analysis and conclusions, we have made a collective recommendation to close the QDDR benchmark process and shift our focus from leadership within the U.S. Government to global leadership by the U.S. Government. This recommendation has been accepted," read a July 3 blog post by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Ambassador Eric Goosby, Director Thomas Frieden, and Executive Director Lois Quam.
"At the State Department, the GHI Office (S/GHI) will close and the Office of Global Health Diplomacy (S/GHD) will be stood up. Unlike S/GHI's focus on interagency coordination, the S/GHD office's mandate will be to champion the priorities and policies of GHI in the diplomatic arena.... Global Health Initiative will continue as the priority global health initiative of the U.S. Government.... GHI country teams and GHI planning leads will continue to work to implement GHI strategies under the leadership of the U.S. Ambassador."
The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), an umbrella group representing development organizations co-chaired by David Beckmann, George Ingram and Jim Kolbe, today issued a harsh criticism of the administration's decision.
"The Obama Administration unfortunately yielded to inertia and interagency turf battles in deciding not to move leadership of the Global Health Initiative (GHI), America's largest development program, to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), our premier development agency," MFAN wrote. "We are concerned that our partners on the ground will continue to be confused about global health leadership and coordination, which will hamper efforts to effectively transition ownership of development programs to recipient countries.... Viewed through these lenses, the Administration may have undermined its own landmark efforts to increase development effectiveness and accountability."
Development experts Amanda Glassman and Rachel Silverman wrote about the backstory in a blog post on the website of the Center for Global Development. They said the administration has dramatically scaled back its ambitions for GHI by deciding not to consolidate its leadership at USAID.
"The news is deeply disappointing and frustrating on a number of levels. The announcement reflects a breakdown of the inter-agency process. It demonstrates a continued lack of political will to address the hard questions that hamper integration, particularly separate earmarked funding streams and parallel, competing institutions within the U.S. government that had different strategies and relationships with recipient country governments," they wrote. "The bottom line: GHI 1.0 failed on the hard questions, and GHI 2.0 isn't even trying."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington today on a two-week trip that includes a stop in Israel, a stop in Egypt, and a new effort to head off a possible new round of tensions with Palestinian leaders.
Clinton's travel will take her to France, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Egypt and Israel. The first item on Clinton's international agenda is Syria, and Clinton will attend the Friday meeting in Paris of the Friends of Syria group, the U.S.- and Turkey-led diplomatic initiative that is meant to coordinate international action to resolve the Syrian crisis.
Clinton isn't expected to make any significant changes in the U.S. position on Syria, which is still, in a nutshell, to avoid direct intervention, look the other way while Gulf Arab states arms the opposition, and work with Russia to facilitate a Yemen-like political transition.
"[T]he secretary will consult with her colleagues on steps to increase pressure on the Assad regime and to support UN-Arab League Special Envoy Annan's efforts to end the violence and facilitate a political transition to a post-Assad Syria," read a statement sent out by the State Department today.
While she's in Paris, Clinton will also meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, "to discuss both parties' efforts to pursue a dialogue and build on President Abbas' exchange of letters with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu," the State Department said.
Reuters reported that reported that Clinton requested the meeting and will also press Abbas not to pursue a new United Nations resolution that condemns settlements in "occupied" territories. Expectations on the Palestinian side for any progress in Paris are low, according to Reuters.
On the Israeli side, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told an audience last week at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival that a new unilateral settlement freeze was not likely. "The Palestinians under Abu Mazen refused once and again to get into the room without a precondition... I believe that most of the responsibility is on their shoulders," he said.
The U.S. and Palestinian leaderships have also been at loggerheads over the Palestinian drive to seek membership in U.N. bodies, such as UNESCO. U.S. law required the end of all American contributions to UNESCO after that body admitted Palestine as a member earlier this year.
On July 8, Clinton will go on to Tokyo to attend an international conference on the future of Afghanistan, a follow-up to last December's conference in Bonn, Germany. In Tokyo, Clinton will talk about the "transformation decade" in Afghanistan, which she will say begins in 2015, after the bulk of U.S. and international forces leave that country.
"The Afghan Government in turn will lay out its plan for economic reform and continued steps toward good governance," the State Department said in its release.
The next day Clinton will go to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to speak to a meeting of the Governing Board of the Community of Democracies, an informal multilateral coalition of countries that promotes democratic values,, speak at a women's conference, and meet with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj and Prime Minister Sükhbaataryn Batbold.
On July 10 Clinton moves on to Hanoi for a day of meetings with government and business leaders before traveling to Vientiane, Laos, on July 11. Her stop in Laos will mark the first visit to that country -- one of the world's last avowedly communist states -- by a U.S. Secretary of State in 57 years and Clinton will meet with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong.
After her brief stop in Laos, Clinton will arrive late in the day July 11 in Cambodia. While there, she will participate in three major conferences: the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting, and the U.S.-ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference. Tensions between China and its neighbors over maritime disputes is sure to be high on the agenda.
After two days in Phnom Penh, Clinton will go to the city of Siem Reap on July 14 to meet with business leaders and deliver the keynote address at the Lower Mekong Initiative Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Dialogue. The Lower Mekong Initiative is a development-focused forum that joins the U.S. with several southeast Asian nations.
The next day it's off to Cairo, where Clinton is reported to have a meeting scheduled with the new President Mohamed Morsy. She will stay in Egypt until July 16, and will meet with senior government officials, civil society, and business leaders, and inaugurate the U.S. consulate in Alexandria.
The last stop on Clinton's tour is Israel, where she will be meeting with as yet undisclosed Israeli leaders "to discuss peace efforts and a range of regional and bilateral issues of mutual concern," the State Department said.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is also expected to travel to Israel to meet with leaders there sometime this summer.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, actor Ben Affleck, and Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman are all joining together this week for a major conference devoted to preventing childhood death.
The U.S., Ethiopian, and Indian governments are the hosts of the two-day Call to Action for Child Survival, being held Thursday and Friday at Washington's Georgetown University. Other notable speakers at the conference include Sen. Johnny Isaakson (R-GA), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, the first lady of Mozambique Maria Da Luz Guebuza, Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, and many others.
More than 700 leaders from the private sector, government, and civil society will be there, including representation from more than 80 countries, with over 50 countries represented at the ministerial level.
"Every child deserves to have a fifth birthday and even this year more than seven and a half million children will die before their fifth birthday," Shah told The Cable in an interview.
"We've brought together experts around the world to create a new partnership that will be launching to really help eliminate preventable child death," he said. "We think that goal is achievable and we're having this call to action on Thursday."
The event will follow another large development conference going on in Washington this week. Wednesday was the last of three days in the first annual Frontiers in Development conference, also hosted by USAID at Georgetown.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) spoke at the Monday-morning kickoff session of the conference and made a detailed argument in favor of U.S. foreign aid budgets despite the nation's fiscal woes.
"Amid these financial threats and budgetary realities, it is inevitable that some will question the role of the United States in global development," he said. "But I would assert this morning that development assistance, when properly administered, remains a bargain for U.S. national security and for our own economic and moral standing in the world."
The conference also featured speeches by Joyce Banda, President of Malawi, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, Atifete Jahjaga, President of Kosovo, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Adm. James Stavridis, NSC Senior Director Gayle Smith, former Irish President Mary Robinson, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides, former presidential daughter Barbara P. Bush, and actress Mandy Moore.
"We think development is going through this amazing transformation and it's a transformation based on absolute demand for results when we spend taxpayer dollars and when we work abroad," Shah told The Cable. "This conference is one step in that direction. It's intended to bring thought leaders from around the world together."
No taxpayer dollars are being used for the event, Shah said. It's funded privately by groups such as the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.
"They recognize we are at a pivotal moment where we can either elevate development and make it a serious part of how America projects values abroad in an effort to build a safer and more prosperous world, or we can turn the other way and cede our historic leadership role in this space to other emerging economies in Asia and elsewhere," he said. "It's our choice."
The biggest single new initiative in the State Department's $51.6 billion budget proposal for next year was a Middle East Incentive Fund -- $770 million in mostly new money to help State respond to the Arab Spring by supporting emerging democracies and their civil societies. But the House of Representatives declined to fund it in their version of the appropriations bill.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee for State and Foreign Ops didn't give any money to fund the initiative in their fiscal 2013 appropriations mark, released last month. The leaders of that subcommittee claim that State failed to give them enough detail about the program to justify the new outlay of funds. Now, the State Department is depending on its allies in the Senate to save the program when the Senate Appropriations Committee marks up its bill next week. The episode is an example of the disconnect between State and Congress over how to respond to the Arab Spring as well as the difficulty of securing new money for diplomatic initiatives in this tight budget environment.
"This is something that Secretary Clinton has really -- and with the President -- has focused principally on," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides said in February when announcing the initiative. "The notion is we're in a new world. The Arab Spring has come; we need to make sure we have the tools and the flexibility in which to fund these initiatives. I cannot tell you today where that money will be spent because we'll be, obviously, in consultation with the Hill. We'll be coming up with initiatives that we'll then be discussing with the Hill."
"But this is something we coordinated and talked a lot about with our friends on the Hill, the idea is to have some flexibility to support everything from Tunisia, to support areas like potentially in Egypt and in areas where things are changing every day in Syria, things where changing, the world is evolving as we see it, and we felt it was important to have a pool of money," he said.
At the time, budget experts warned that it would be difficult for the State Department to get Congress to spring for the program because State didn't seem to have a lot of detail about what the money would be used for.
"That will be controversial because there's no content. It's a contingency fund and Congress doesn't like to give State contingency funds," said former Office of Management and Budget National Security Director Gordon Adams at the time.
State did brief all the relevant committees on the new fund and provided as much detail and context as they could, but it wasn't enough for the House subcommittee leaders, Reps. Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY).
"The administration could not justify the broad authority requested to override existing laws. However, the House bill does provide State some flexible funding to be responsive, within the existing account structure, while increasing congressional oversight on key countries," Granger's spokesman Matt Leffingwell told The Cable.
The "existing account structure" he referred to is the economic support funds that are given each year on a country-by-country basis. Congress prefers granting State country-specific aid because it's easier to track and oversee.
"Congresswoman Lowey supports U.S. engagement in the region and believes we must have the flexibility to respond to rapid changes and developments. Existing accounts within the bill provide that important flexibility," Lowey's spokesman Matt Dennis told The Cable.
Outside experts working closely on the issue said that the State Department didn't properly explain the new fund or its benefits to Congress and didn't have specific enough proposals to give lawmakers assurance the money would be spent wisely.
"This incentive fund is an important new initiative, but unfortunately it seems the administration has done a pretty poor job of pitching it to the hill. There's a lot of confusion in Congress about what this fund is for and why it's important," said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.
"This fund should be a signature initiative of the administration to respond to the historic events in the region, and these funds could be essential to the administration's ability to respond to events that haven't yet unfolded in places like Syria, where there is no existing U.S. assistance package in the budget," said McInerney.
Using economic support funds is not a great option because those funds are already devoted to specific causes and diverting them from other places would hurt other priorities, McInerney argued.
"The administration won't be able to use that flexibility without significant cuts to existing programs. Without some support from Congress, it's really tough to get it off the ground," he said.
Tamara Wittes, head of the Brookings Institute's Saban Center on the Middle East, pointed out that within the $770 million State requested for the new fund, it included a $65 million annual request for an existing program called the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is how State has been funding civil society development in the region. So now, MEPI's funding is also at risk.
"Congress may not realize that MEPI funding was embedded in this proposal, but they need to be aware of the impact of their decision on America's ability to partner with citizens in the region who are working for positive change," she said. Wittes was head of the MEPI office and deputy director of State's new Middle East Transitions Office before she left government earlier this year.
The new Middle East Incentive Fund is State's way of trying to shift America's aid approach in the region from the military-dominated focus of the recent decades to an approach focused on the promotion of civil society and political reform, said Wittes.
"We have to look at the overall ratio of our assistance and how that is seen by the people of the region. In order to seize the opportunity that the Arab Spring presents, we need to shift the logic of our relationships to one that emphasizes projects with people," she said.
The fight to save the fund now goes to the Senate, where the Senate Appropriations Committee is set to mark up its State and Foreign Ops bill as early as next week. David Carle, the spokesman for State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), told The Cable, "Sen. Leahy does intend to include some amount for the fund, for the reasons the administration requested it -- to provide flexibility to respond to changing events in the ME and NA regions."
The Senate subcommittee hasn't decided how much of the request to support. Their version of the bill could be conferenced with the House version. More likely, Congress will not complete any appropriations bills this year and the two versions will simply inform a temporary funding measure crafted by congressional leadership in late September.
The new fund does have one powerful staunch supporter in Congress, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA).
"This is something that's been percolating a long time on the Hill and in the administration and it's really a no-brainer," Kerry told The Cable in a statement. "We're witnessing a period of historic change in the Middle East, and it's impossible to predict what will happen next month, let alone next year, which is why the State Department should have the flexibility to deal with unforeseen contingencies. Positive incentives for economic and democratic reforms also make sense. American assistance in itself may not convince governments that are resisting reform to change, but in places that have already begun to chart a new course, like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, it can help empower moderates and reformers."
The State Department declined to comment.
UPDATE: A reader points out that the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee's report on the bill does direct $70 million to MEPI, separate from the Middle East Incentive Fund.
Syrian government forces continue to attack opposition forces, civilians, and aid volunteers, preventing the international community from getting emergency aid to the Syrian people, USAID has detailed in a series of internal reports obtained by The Cable.
In its latest "humanitarian update," written at the end of April, USAID reported in detail the extensive attacks perpetrated by Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) troops, despite an ongoing U.N. monitoring mission and in direct violation of the "cease-fire" there. The USAID report, marked "sensitive but unclassified," sourced its findings to U.N. representatives in Syria as well as representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), and other aid groups on the ground.
"U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan expressed concerns regarding reports of SARG reprisal attacks in areas where Syrian civilians met with U.N. observers, including in Hamah and Damascus governorates," the report stated. "The observers report that SARG forces have not withdrawn heavy weapons from urban centers -- a condition of the U.N. and Arab League supported ceasefire and peace plan that went into effect on April 12."
Although the U.N. Security Council has authorized the deployment of 300 monitors, the report could only confirm that "at least 11" U.N. monitors had arrived in Syria as of April 24. (Additional monitors have reportedly arrived since then.)
Meanwhile, USAID reported that government forces attacked an SARC vehicle April 24 that was evacuating wounded civilians in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, killing one aid volunteer and injuring three. Twenty-six aid workers were trapped in an SARC building following the attack and the SARC had to negotiate a temporary ceasefire between opposition and government forces to get them out, USAID reported.
Following a request from SARC, USAID contractors have suspended the deployment of mobile medical units that were providing health-care services in and around Damascus, the report said.
"In addition to emergency medical needs resulting from ongoing violence, a USAID/OFDA partner report increasing constraints on the availability of medications for chronic diseases, which are prohibitively expensive for Syrians without financial assistance," the report stated. "In addition, the U.N. World Health Organization representatives have expressed concern about the health of displaced Syrians in Jordan."
A USAID contractor is working to train Syrian doctors in Jordan so they can return to Syria and provide life saving medical care there, and a USAID contractor has procured 10,000 kg of medical supplies for use in Syria and is trying to get those supplies into the country, according to the report.
In an April 26 press briefing, USAD Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Christa Capozzola criticized the Syrian regime for not allowing emergency aid supplies to reach the Syrian people and called for more help.
"While some aid is reaching people in need through the Red Crescent, other U.N. agencies, and other international organizations, current humanitarian access restrictions remain a significant challenge to the aid effort," she said. "After months of working under these conditions, the aid organizations working in Syria are extremely stretched. To continue alleviating suffering and saving lives, they need more support and capacity from the international community.
The U.S. government has spent $39.4 million on assistance for Syria in fiscal 2012, the report stated. The report noted that only $33 million of this assistance has been publicly reported before now.
Overall, the USAID report concluded that there had been at least 9,000 civilian deaths in Syria as of March 27, according to U.N. figures, although the current number is likely higher. There are between 300,000 and 500,000 internally displaced Syrians, according to the report, 610,000 estimated refuges inside Syria, and approximately 66,000 Syrian refuges who have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.
The USAID report was marked sensitive but unclassified (SBU).
U.S. Agency for International Development
The House Appropriations Committee proposed cutting the State Department and foreign operations budget by more than $5 billion next year, in its annual allocations released Tuesday.
The Obama administration actually requested modest increases in funding for the State Department and USAID for fiscal 2013 when it released its budget request in February. While the Congress doesn't divide up the accounts the same way as the administration, in an apples-to-apples comparison, the House Appropriations Committees' allocation for State and foreign operations for fiscal 2013, $48.4 billion, would represent a 12 percent cut from the administration's $54.71 billion request for the same accounts.
The House proposed fully funding the president's $8.2 billion request for State Department funding related to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. Therefore, the remainder of the funding proposed by the House, $40.1 billion for the base budget, would represent a 14 percent cut to the administration's request for non-war related diplomatic and development activities.
The House proposal would also be a $5 billion or 9 percent cut from the funding levels enacted in fiscal 2012. The Senate Appropriations Committee, in its own allocations, proposed giving the State and foreign operations accounts $53 billion, roughly equal to fiscal 2012 levels, although the Senate proposed shifting $5 billion from the OCO account to the base budget.
Non-governmental organizations that focus on international affairs funding were quick to criticize the House Appropriations Committee's actions.
"Retreat from our engagement in the world is not an option for the sake of our national security, but these cuts to the International Affairs Budget represent just that," said retired Marine Corps Gen. Mike Hagee, co-chair of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition's National Security Advisory Council. "The International Affairs Budget is absolutely critical to our nation's security and economic interests, and the programs it funds are cost-effective ways to prevent conflicts that will eventually require us to put our brave men and women in uniform in harm's way."
The allocations released Tuesday are just the first step in a long appropriations process. Next, the subcommittees will write up appropriations bills to fit within the allocation limits, after which both chambers will ostensibly begin marking up appropriations bills and moving them through the legislative process.
Practically, nobody expects the Congress to actually pass appropriations bills this year through both chambers due to the hyper partisanship of the presidential election season. But the spade work done by the committees could influence what ends up getting funded in the catch-all emergency stop gap spending bill that Congress will have to pass when the fiscal year expires Sept. 30 in order to keep the lights on throughout the government.
The House's proposal could also be just the first step in a multi-year effort by the GOP to steadily reduce funding for diplomacy and development, as is spelled out in the 99 page "Path to Prosperity" document put for by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).
"I am committed to working together with the Chairman and with our colleagues across the aisle to make sure that we continue to support our critical national security priorities and that there is proper oversight and accountability for all of our foreign assistance," State and foreign ops Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX) told The Cable in a statement.
Subcommittee ranking Democrat Nita Lowey (D-NY) criticized the cuts in her own statement to The Cable.
"I am disappointed by this short-sighted allocation and the Republicans' decision to ignore bipartisan funding levels agreed to in the Budget Control Act," she said. "We must not make cuts that fundamentally weaken our national security interests."
A bill to sanction Russian human rights violators will not be taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week after the Obama administration urged Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) to keep it off the committee's agenda, The Cable has learned.
Last month, Kerry indicated that the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 would be brought up for a vote at the April 26 SFRC business meeting and he also endorsed the idea of combining the Magnitsky bill with a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law. "In good faith, we will move as rapidly as we can, hopefully the minute we're back, but certainly shortly thereafter," Kerry said March 27, just before the last Senate recess.
But after what several Senate aides described as intense lobbying from top Obama administration officials, including Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Kerry decided not to put the bill on the agenda of the next business meeting, delaying consideration of the bill until May at the earliest, after the visit to the U.S. of Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin.
In a statement to The Cable, Kerry said he still supports quick passage of the Magnitsky bill and its linkage to the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, but that he needed more time to iron out differences over the details of the legislation.
"I support this effort and, as I said at the last business meeting, passing the Magnitsky legislation out of our committee is not a question of if, only when. I've been trying to get everyone on the same page because that's how you get the best legislative result, and everyone was explicitly very comfortable with where we were. My goal here is to get the best result," Kerry said.
But several aides told The Cable that not everybody was comfortable with the delay. The Cable obtained an e-mail sent late last week from the staff of committee Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) to several Democratic Senate offices including that of Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the bill's main sponsor, in which Lugar protests the delay strongly.
"We want to reiterate Senator Lugar's position, as he stated at the last business meeting, that he strongly supports having the Magnitsky Act taken up at the next business meeting (i.e. next week)," the e-mail reads.
"As we understand the situation, the White House and State Department have been frantic over the last 24 hours in trying to head off consideration of the bill next week by contacting numerous Democratic offices," Lugar's staff wrote. "Thus, our position remains as it has been: Senator Lugar supports immediate consideration of the Magnitsky bill-next week. If Senators Kerry and/or Cardin do not wish to have it taken up then, that is prerogative of the SFRC Majority, but it is not the position of Senator Lugar."
The Obama administration is on the record opposing the Magnitsky bill and believes that its passage could imperil U.S.-Russian cooperation on a range of issues. The Russian government has even threatened to scuttle the New START nuclear reductions treaty if the Magnitsky bill is passed, which would erase the signature accomplishment of the administration's U.S.-Russia reset policy.
"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes," the administration said in its official comments on the bill last July. "Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes."
Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak said Monday at a lunch with reporters in Washington that passage of the Magnitsky bill would have a "significant negative impact" on the U.S.-Russia relationship and said it was unacceptable for the United States to interfere in the Magnitsky case, which he said was an internal Russian issue.
"It's artificially attached to the whole issue of Jackson Vanik... It's politically motivated," he said. "We do not want to be told what to do within the limits of Russian law."
Kislyak then said there were human rights violations in the United States that Russia could raise in the context of trade negotiations, but chooses not to.
"I could bring up one example that is very much on our minds. Three years of long investigation of the killing of children adopted from Russia, with absolute immunity, but we do not bring that issue into the economic realm," he said.
Cardin, meanwhile, has been working with administration behind the scenes to make changes to the Magnitsky bill, and even came up with a new draft version of the legislation last week, before the delay. The Cable obtained an internal document showing exactly what changed in the bill.
For example, the new version makes it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill would create. In the previous version, any member of Congress could request to add the name of an alleged human rights violator to the bill. In the new version, both the chair and ranking member of a relevant committee must jointly request someone be added to the list, a high bar in a partisan Congress.
Cardin is caught by between his desire to see his legislation passed without being gutted and his desire to work with the administration. In a brief interview with The Cable last week, he insisted he still wants the Magnitsky bill joined with the legislation that will repeal Jackson-Vanik and grant Russia PNTR.
"There's a growing support in the Senate to make sure it's part of the PNTR debate," he said. "We'd like SFRC to mark it up and then take it to the Senate Finance Committee and make it part of the PNTR bill."
The exact logistics for how the Magnitsky bill is moved in conjunction with the PNTR bill are up in the air. It could be joined in the Senate Finance Committee, or on the Senate floor, or just passed at the same time. But what's clear is that there are several senators ready to hold up PNTR for Russia if the Magnitsky bill isn't considered in conjunction.
Among Capitol Hill staffers, there's also concern that the administration may be negotiating to water down the Magnitsky bill now, only to ultimately oppose it later. A similar dynamic played out over sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran last December. Then, it was Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who carried water for the administration before discovering they would ultimately oppose the bill no matter what. Menendez was livid. That bill passed the Senate 100-0.
"The last thing the Obama administration wants is Magnitsky to pass and not PNTR, but at the rate they are going, it could be likely that neither moves," one senior Senate GOP aide told The Cable. "The administration's strategy is to delay as long as possible any SFRC consideration, in hopes that in a year with few legislative days the window for Magnitsky passage narrows and disappears."
UPDATE: Tuesday afternoon, Kerry's Communications Director Jodi Seth sent the following statement on the delay to The Cable:
"The decision not to put the Magnitsky bill on the agenda for the business meeting on April 26 was made only after consultations with relevant committee offices. At no time during the decision-making process did Lugar staff raise any objection to not adding the bill to the agenda."
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
In an escalation of the United Arab Emirates' crackdown on foreign NGOs, the UAE government has detained foreign employees of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and is preventing at least one of them from leaving the country.
Late Wednesday, the director of NDI's Dubai office, Patricia Davis, an American, and her deputy director Slobodon Milic, a Serbian national, were stopped at the Dubai airport by UAE government authorities as they tried to leave the country, according to three sources briefed on the incident. Davis was eventually allowed to leave the UAE, but Milic was not. He was detained by authorities, and subsequently released but is still barred from leaving the UAE. The UAE government has also notified NDI that they plan to file criminal indictments against foreign NGO workers in the UAE for foreign interference in political affairs, the sources said.
"We understand that the deputy director for NDI in the UAE was briefly detained and then released. We are seeking more information from the government of the UAE on the matter," a State Department official told The Cable. "As the Secretary has said many times, we believe NGOs play a valuable and legitimate role in a country's political and economic development. They should be able to operate consistent with regulations and standards and without constraints."
"We will continue to support civil society in the UAE and across the region. NDI is a respected organization that has been working across the region and beyond to promote civil society development and democratic values. The State Department is a firm supporter of NDI's activities," the official said.
The move mirrors the actions taken by the Egyptian government over the past three months, which included barring over a dozen foreign workers from leaving Egypt -- including Americans working for NDI, the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Freedom House -- and subsequently indicting them on criminal charges.
The U.S. government paid $5 million in "bail" money to secure the March 1 release of American NGO workers trapped in Egypt, including Sam LaHood, the Cairo director of the IRI and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then waived congressional restrictions on the $1.5 billion of annual U.S. aid to Egypt, which would have required that the State Department certify that Egypt was moving toward democracy and upholding civil rights.
Several of the American NGO workers who were indicted by the Egyptian government were not in Egypt at the time, and the National Journal reported Wednesday that the Egyptian government has asked Interpol to issue international arrest warrants for those NGO workers. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is trying to convince Interpol to reject those requests.
The UAE government shut down and revoked the license of the NDI office in Dubai last week, just days before Clinton visited the region and raised the issue in a meeting with Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
"We very much regret it," Clinton said after the meeting. "We are as you know, as anyone who has visited the United States, strong believers in a vibrant civil society ... I expect our discussions on this issue to continue."
A U.S. congressional staff delegation has been in the UAE this week as well, and has been raising the NDI issue with both UAE and American officials on the ground. One congressional staffer in Dubai told The Cable Wednesday that UAE officials argued to the staff delegation that NDI was operating without a license, had no legal right to be operating in UAE, and was writing things that weren't true.
NDI Middle East Director Les Campbell said last week that his organization has no programs in the UAE, and the office "was simply a regional hub which supported programmes in places like Qatar and Kuwait."
The congressional staffers pressed the UAE officials to comment on the rumors that the UAE government was acting on behalf of the Saudi government, which is said to object to NDI's programs for Saudi women. But the UAE officials denied any knowledge of Saudi interference or pressure to the congressional staffers.
The staffer also said U.S. Ambassador to the UAE Michael Corbin downplayed the UAE government's actions in his meeting with the congressional delegation.
"Even more troublesome was [the U.S.] ambassador's statement in response to questions we raised about the shutdown in a meeting on Tuesday. He essentially suggested that it wasn't that big of a deal since NDI doesn't do any work in the UAE," the staffer said. "Moreover, he seemed to sympathize with their concerns given the changing situation in the Middle East and he characterized work that organizations like NDI do as ‘fomenting' political change."
Officials at NDI's Washington office and the UAE embassy in Washington declined to comment.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
The State Department is getting ready to decide if Egypt has done enough to earn its $1.5 billion in U.S. aid for this year, and one leading human rights organization is telling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the answer is no.
"Amnesty International USA is deeply concerned about the ongoing repression of the Egyptian people by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt," the advocacy group wrote in a Wednesday letter to Clinton. "Given the human rights violations in Egypt, the US State Department cannot in good faith certify to the US Congress that the Egyptian government is protecting human rights."
Clinton is in charge of determining whether or not the Egyptian government has met the requirements spelled out in the last congressional appropriations bill as prerequisites for getting the $1.3 billion in annual military aid and another $250 million or so to promote democracy and civil society in Egypt. The law mandates that Clinton certify Egypt is proceeding on the road to a democratic transition, maintaining its commitments under its peace treaty with Israel, and "implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law."
The president can waive those requirements based on national security grounds if he wants.
"We urge you not to make such a certification, and we also oppose any waiving of this certification requirement," the Amnesty International letter states. "Making such a certification would undermine the brave struggle of the Egyptian people for a society founded on respect for human rights and the rule of law. Waiving the certification requirement would forfeit a key form of pressure for the advancement of human rights."
Specifically, Amnesty International opposes the subset of military aid that puts weapons, ammunition, and vehicles in the hands of security forces that have already used such items in human rights violations
We're told that although the State Department is technically in charge of this certification, other agencies are involved in the decision-making process and the Pentagon is pushing internally for at least some of the aid to go through.
Officials and lawmakers threatened to cut the aid to Egypt during the first round of the NGO crisis in January, when the Egyptian government raided several American funded NGOs and charged Americans with crimes for working at those NGOs. Even though those Americans have been allowed to leave Egypt, the Egyptian government's assault on its own civil society continues, Amnesty says.
"The ongoing trial of NGO staff on spurious charges is just one incident in a broader pattern of the new Egyptian regime continuing the old Mubarak practice of muzzling civil society," the group's letter continues.
Amnesty also points out that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which temporarily holds executive power in Egypt, has not rescinded emergency security laws, has continued to perpetrate violence against peaceful protesters, is still trying civilians in military courts, and has worked to exclude women from political participation.
"Furthermore, we call on the State Department to cease the funding, transfer, licensing, or sale of weapons, ammunition, military equipment, and military vehicles that can be used by Egypt's government to suppress human rights," the letter reads. "Any such funding derived from the U.S. Foreign Military Financing program should be halted immediately."
The Obama administration is moving to provide direct assistance to the internal opposition in Syria for the first time, marking a shift in U.S. policy toward a more aggressive plan to help oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Last week, a group of senior Obama administration officials met to finalize a package of options for aiding both the internal and external Syrian opposition, to include providing direct humanitarian and communications assistance to the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable. This meeting of what's known as the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council set forth a new and assertive strategy for expanding U.S. engagement with Syrian activists and providing them with the means to organize themselves, but stops short of providing any direct military assistance to the armed opposition.
For now, riskier options, such as creating a no-fly zone in Syria, using U.S. military force there, or engaging directly with the Free Syrian Army, are all still off the table. But the administration has decided not to oppose, either in public or in private, the arming of the rebels by other countries, the officials said.
"These moves are going to invest the U.S. in a much deeper sense with the opposition," one administration official said. "U.S. policy is now aligned with enabling the opposition to overthrow the Assad regime. This codifies a significant change in our Syria policy."
The package of options will be debated by cabinet-level officials at what's known as a Principals Committee meeting as early as this afternoon, the two officials said. The principals could endorse the entire package or make some changes, the officials said, although the package does have the consensus of the interagency coming out of last week's Deputies Committee meeting.
The administration is planning to greatly expand its interactions with the external Syrian opposition, led by the Syrian National Council, as well as with internal opposition bodies to include Syrian NGOs, the Local Coordinating Councils, and the Revolutionary Councils that are increasingly becoming the de facto representation of the Syrian opposition. The Free Syrian Army works with these councils, but the administration is not ready to engage the armed rebels directly out of concern that they are still somewhat unaccountable and may have contacts with extremist elements.
As part of the new outreach, the State Department and USAID have been tasked with devising a plan to speed humanitarian and communications assistance to the internal Syrian civilian opposition, working through State's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) office. There is no concrete plan yet as to how to get the goods into Syria if the Assad regime doesn't grant access to affected areas.
"We're leaving State and USAID to work that out. That's the million-dollar question. We're working on that now," the official explained.
Meanwhile, the administration wants to bolster the new defense committee established by the SNC last week, hoping to solidify that body's prominence as the contact point for coordinating military and technical assistance to the rebels, if a decision is taken later to move in that direction. The FSA has rejected the SNC's defense committee as being part of its chain of command, but for now the Obama administration sees the SNC as a more credible organization with which to explore options to potentially provide military aid.
"The prevailing narrative is enabling the transition while keeping options open for reaching out to the armed opposition," the administration official said. "There is recognition that lethal assistance to the opposition may be necessary, but not at this time."
At last month's initial Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that arming the Syrian rebels was "an excellent idea," though there are conflicting reports as to whether and to what extent Saudi weapons and cash were already flowing into the country.
In preparation for the next Friends of Syria meeting in Turkey later this month, the Obama administration has decided not to openly oppose direct military assistance to the rebels as long as it comes from another country, not the United States, one of the administration officials said.
"The decision has been made at the next Friends of Syria meeting to not oppose any proposals to arm the FSA and we're not going to publicly or privately message on that," the official said. "We're not going to publicly or privately tell the Friends of Syria not to do this."
Inside the administration, there is still a consensus that U.S. military intervention in Syria is not wise at this time and there are still voices expressing hope that political transition could take place in Syria without all out civil war.
"It's more about what could be accomplished by intervening. So many questions haven't been answered," another administration official said, expressing the widespread internal uneasiness about involving the U.S. military in yet another war in the Middle East. "There's a chance we could get embroiled in a conflict. What does that do to our preparedness for other contingencies?"
Some in the administration still hold out hope that the Russians can be persuaded to play a more helpful role in Syria. But two officials confirmed that Russian arms deliveries to Syria are ongoing and one administration official said that the latest shipment included large amounts of advanced anti-aircraft missile systems, which are meant to help Syria repel any attempt to establish a no-fly zone.
"What that says is that the Russians are doubling down on Assad. They're preparing for the next step, which is the internationalization of the conflict," one administration official said.
For the critics of Obama's Syria policy, these moves represent a step in the right direction but still fall short of what is needed for the United States to halt the violence.
"I am encouraged the Obama administration is exploring steps to provide direct assistance to Syrians inside their country, but the incremental measures reportedly under consideration still do not come to grips with the fundamental reality in Syria, which is that Bashar al-Assad, equipped and resupplied by Iran and Russia, is now waging an outright war against the Syrian people, who are outmatched, outgunned, and urgently in need of decisive international intervention," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable today.
Lieberman, along with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) came out Monday in favor of a U.S.-led intervention in Syria to begin immediately.
"To me this should begin with medical and military assistance for the opposition, including tactical intelligence and weapons, and ultimately should include targeted airstrikes against Assad's bases and forces," Lieberman said. "The United States should help organize such support for the Syrian opposition, but it should be international and include our concerned allies in the Arab League, the GCC, NATO, and the EU."
Lieberman, McCain, and Graham will all have a chance to question the administration on these new moves Wednesday when the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joints Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment on the administration's internal deliberations.
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
The State Department rolled out its fiscal 2013 budget request today, which contains several items that are sure to meet resistance when lawmakers roll up their sleeves and dig into the budget this spring and summer.
International programs don't have strong constituencies on Capitol Hill to begin with, and Congress has its own ideas for how to spend foreign aid.
The State Department knows all of this, of course, and has framed its fiscal 2013 budget request as a small portion of the federal budget that contributes directly to national security. State's $51.6 billion request, however, faces a GOP-led House that is searching hard for discretionary budget items to cut and a foreign-policy-minded Senate that wants to use aid to press foreign governments to act more in line with U.S. priorities.
"This is a moment of historic change around the world. They are also tight times for our government and for our people -- the two truths that have guided us from day one," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides said Monday. "And so, as I'd like to remind you once again, with just 1 percent of the federal budget, the State Department and USAID will maintain our country's leadership in a changing world, what'll promote our values, jumpstart our economy, and above all keep America safe in 2013 and beyond."
Here are five of the items in the State Department's budget that will spark debates in Congress this year:
1) The top line budget numbers. The State Department and USAID requested $51.6 billion for fiscal year 2013, but $8.2 billion is categorized as temporarily needed funding for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan under what's called the Overseas Contingency Operations fund (OCO) account. The remaining $43.6 billion is the "core budget" request and represents a 10 percent increase over fiscal 2012 levels as enacted by Congress.
For fiscal 2012, lawmakers moved a lot of funding from the core budget to the OCO account in order to fit State Department funding inside the mandatory discretionary spending caps set forth in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Now, State is trying to move that funding back into its core budget so that it will have it whenever the need for emergency funding wanes.
In general, State prefers to use the OCO accounts when possible because Congress is more willing to fund programs that are needed in the current wars... and because the OCO account is off budget. ("Obviously, the benefit of the OCO account in general allows for all of you who report on this and for the Hill to look at the costs of our frontline states, to look at the costs of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan," said Nides.)
But outside experts see the OCO account, which has been used by State since last year and by the Pentagon since 9/11, as a slush fund. "I think OCO accounts are a scourge," said Gordon Adams, former national security director at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. "Special extra accounts are a refuge for budget scoundrels. Funding for all three of those countries are going to be subject to debate and dispute."
2) Middle East Funding Initiative. The administration is requesting $770 million for this new initiative, which is meant to support U.S. activities in countries affected by the "Arab Spring." This is the largest single new program in the State Department's budget request, but there's not a lot of detail in the request about how the money will actually be spent.
Nides said it's impossible to predict. "The Arab Spring has come. We need to make sure we have the tools and the flexibility in which to fund these initiatives," he said. "I cannot tell you today where that money will be spent, because we'll be, obviously, in consultation with the Hill."
Some $70 million of that total comes from existing programs, the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and USAID's Office of Middle East Partnerships (OMEP). The remaining $700 million is "new money," an administration official said. "We came to the Middle East changes without any resources dedicated to this in the budget," the official said, explaining that State has spent about $800 million since last year to respond to the protests in countries like Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, but had to cobble those funds together from other accounts.
"That will be controversial because there's no content. It's a contingency fund and Congress doesn't like to give State contingency funds," said Adams. "It's probably not a bad idea in theory but it is way too large for having no program."
3) Egypt military funding. The State Department is again asking Congress for $1.3 billion in direct aid to the Egyptian military. The $1.3 billion in military aid that Congress appropriated for fiscal 2012, however, has not been sent yet and might be held up for a while because of the escalating crisis concerning pending charges against 19 American NGO workers in Cairo. By law, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has to certify the Egyptian military is moving towards a true democratic transition before that money can be released and many top lawmakers are urging her not to do so. There are even bills to halt the funding regardless of Clinton's determination. Additionally, the administration is requesting $250 million in direct assistance to the civilian government, which it believes to be more responsible for the NGO crackdown than the military.
Nevertheless, the administration is hoping that will all be worked out by next year. "Our goal is, is to provide them those funds," said Nides. "I mean, it's obviously clear to all of us that we have issues that we need to work through. And we're working very aggressively to do so. But this budget reflects our commitment and our desire to fully fund those initiatives."
4) Pakistan civilian assistance. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is in tatters, but the administration is still requesting more than $2 billion in aid to Pakistan. But in a shift from last year, the administration is requesting significantly less money for assistance to the Pakistani civilian government while increasing requested aid for the Pakistani military. That may seem odd considering that the Pakistani military and intelligence services have been widely accused of playing both sides in Afghanistan, and that Osama bin Laden was discovered hiding in a military garrison town for years.
Nevertheless, the administration is requesting only $1.1 billion for in Pakistani civilian assistance for 2013, even thought the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill authorized up to $1.5 billion each year. Meanwhile, the administration requested $800 million under the Pakistani Counterinsurgency Contingency Fund (PCCF), a reimbursement program for the Pakistani military jointly run by State and DOD, and State is requesting $350 million in foreign military financing for Pakistan, up from $98 million in fiscal 2012.
An administration official said that becuase Congress only gave State about $1 billion last year under the Kerry-Lugar program, that's about how much they decided to ask for in FY 2013. "It's still one of the largest recipients of assistance in our budget," the administration official said. "We have a lot of negotiation to do and we'll be making that argument that we can and we'll have to figure out with Congress what the final number will be."
5) Palestinian Authority assistance.
The administration requested $370 million for economic support funding for the
West Bank and Gaza in fiscal 2013, down from the $397 million given to the PA
in fiscal 2012 but still one of the largest U.S. assistance programs in the
budget. Congress is extremely sour on PA assistance, however, because peace
talks have broken down and because Fatah and Hamas are planning to form a unity
The reduction in West Bank funding is because equipment for the U.S. police training program there has been largely completed, an administration official said. State also cut the amount of direct cash transfers to the Palestinian Authority from $200 million to $150 million. "We think the economic situation is slightly better so we think we can do a little bit less," the official said.
What's more, the administration is also requesting $79 million for UNESCO in 2013, even though the U.S. government is legally barred from contributing to UNESCO because the organization admitted Palestine as a member.
"The Congress has prohibited us for funding UNESCO this year. And as you know, the president's also articulated -- and quite clearly -- that he would like a waiver to allow us to participate in UNESCO," said Nides. "We have put the money in the budget, realizing that we are not going to be able to spend the money unless we get the waiver. And we have made it clear to the Congress we'd like a waiver."
The Chinese people are increasingly frustrated with the Chinese Communist Party and the political situation in China is "very, very delicate," U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke said on Wednesday.
"I do believe that there is a power of the people, and there is a growing frustration among the people over the operations of government, corruption, lack of transparency, and issues that affect the Chinese people on a daily basis that they feel are being neglected," Locke told NPR's Steve Inskeep during a Wednesday interview, part of a media blitz Locke is conducting during his visit to Washington.
"Do you think that the situation is fundamentally stable in China right now?" Inskeep asked Locke.
"I think, very delicate -- very, very delicate," Locke responded. "But there were calls earlier this year for a Jasmine Revolution and nothing came of it. I think it would take something very significant, internal to China, to cause any type of major upheaval."
Locke said that since he took over the ambassadorship from former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, he has become aware of public demonstrations large and small throughout China that ordinary people were using to pressure the government to address their grievances. He singled out a recent protest in the southern Chinese city of Wukan over the confiscation of land without reasonable compensation.
"[The people] basically prevented anybody from the outside from coming in and brought the city to a halt and forced the Chinese government communist leaders to send people to address their grievances," Locke said.
The discord inside China is partly a result of the income and wealth disparity between China's growing middle class and the masses of poor, rural residents, Locke said. He also said the Chinese government's human rights record was worsening.
"[I]t's very clear that in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and since then, there's been a greater intolerance of dissent -- and the human rights record of China has been going in the wrong direction," said Locke.
Asked for comment at today's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland backed up Locke's comments on human rights and the rule of law in China.
"[Locke] obviously speaks for the administration in expressing continued concern that we seem to have an increasing trend of crackdowns, forced disappearances, extralegal detentions, arrests and convictions of human rights activists, lawyers, religious leaders, ethnic minorities in China," she said.
But Nuland declined to repeat Locke's assertion that the Chinese government was potentially unstable.
"I think our message to the Chinese government on these issues is the same message that we give around the world when we have human rights concerns, that governments are stronger when they protect the human rights of their people and when they allow for peaceful dissent," she said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on a trip to West Africa this week to promote and encourage new African democracies, while two of her top aides fan out to two countries where democracy is teetering -- Russia and Afghanistan.
"2011 was a good year for democracy in West Africa, as it was for many places across Africa," a senior administration official told reporters on the plane ride to Liberia on Sunday, the first stop before Clinton moved on to Cote d'Ivoire, Togo, and Cape Verde.
"The administration, since it has been in office, has placed a high priority on strengthening democratic institutions, promoting good governance, holding good, free, fair elections, and encouraging conflict reconciliation and post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction. This trip is about all of those agendas and trying to promote them," the official said. "All three of the countries that we are visiting are countries that are now a part of Africa's democratic success story."
On Monday, Clinton led the U.S. delegation to the swearing-in ceremony for the second term of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the only female president in Africa and the shared winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. The large U.S. delegation at the event also included Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer, USAID Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg, AFRICOM Commander Gen. Carter Ham, and many others. Clinton last visited Liberia in April 2009.
Clinton visited Cote d'Ivoire, another West African country struggling with democratic transition, on Tuesday. It was the visit by a secretary of state to Cote d'Ivoire since George Shultz visited in 1986. Clinton is there to show support for Alassane Ouattara, who took power following the forced removal of Laurent Gbagbo, who is now on trial at The Hague for fomenting violence following his refusal to step down after last year's elections. The official who briefed reporters called Ouattara "one of Africa's newest and most dynamic presidents."
Clinton also attended a post-conflict reconciliation event and met with Ouattara, Foreign Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan, civil society groups, and U.S. embassy staff before spending the second half of the day in Togo -- the first-ever visit by a secretary of state to the country. While there, she met with President Faure Gnassingbe and U.S. embassy staff.
The U.S. official who briefed reporters offered cautious praise for Faure, who took power in flawed elections that were mired in violence after his father died in 2005. New elections in 2010 were better, the official said.
"President Faure is determined to break away from the history of his father. He is determined to put in place a strong reform-minded government -- one that is democratic, multiparty, and which opens up the country," the official said.
The official also revealed another motive for their newfound attention from the State Department.
"Equally important for us.... Togo became a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council. It will be on the council for approximately two years. It's an opportunity to develop stronger relations with them as they serve their tenure on the Security Council," the official said.
On the way home to Washington, Clinton stopped in Sal Island, Cape Verde, and met with Prime Minister José Neves.
Special Representative Marc Grossman also left Sunday on a trip that will take him to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, and Qatar, where he reportedly will be finalizing the arrangements for the next step in peace negotiations with the Taliban.
Back in Washington, the State Department has been left in the capable hands of Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides, who has a very full day of meetings, including with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, British Ambassador-designate Sir Peter Westmacott, Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, Japanese Minister Goshi Hosono, Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, and others.
That leaves Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman to represent State at President Barack Obama's Tuesday afternoon meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, where the two leaders are expected to discuss the crisis in Syria.
The resignation of President Barack Obama's chief of staff shows that the White House is unstable and its national security policies remain dangerous, a top surrogate for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney told The Cable today.
"This unexpected move of Bill Daley out points to a lack of stability," said former Senator Jim Talent in a Tuesday interview.
Talent, who is one of Romney's closest advisors on national security, also harshly criticized Obama's decision to revamp U.S. military strategy, which he announced at the Pentagon on Jan. 5. The new strategy review, released only weeks ahead of Obama's fiscal 2013 budget request, calls for a "smaller and leaner" military and backs off from previous strategy documents that mandated the U.S. military maintain the capability to fight two major wars at the same time.
"I think it's going to encourage provocative actions around the world," said Talent. "It's a signal that America's not going to continue exercising a leadership role, it's very dangerous. And you know that one of the amazing things about it is that it's explicitly a budget-driven decision, in other words there's no pretense that this is a change based on strategic analysis."
When announcing the new defense strategy, Obama said, "The tide of war is receding" -- but the Romney team doesn't see it that way at all.
"That sends the wrong message, it encourages other countries to believe that they can provoke and challenge us, and it will end up costing us more money," said Talent. "It's so much an explicit confession of bankruptcy in terms of defense policy, I almost don't know how to respond to it."
In fact, Talent said that Obama's strategic review is more damaging than the military cuts made by President Bill Clinton's administration following the end of the Cold War.
"That two-war standard was continued in the post-Cold War era by the Clinton administration and was deemed necessary in the 1990s -- and that was before the 9/11 attacks, that was before the rise of Chinese power, and that was before Russia reassumed a more aggressive posture," said Talent. "So if it was necessary according to President Clinton in the 1990s before those additional risks ... how could it not be necessary now?"
Talent laid some of the top foreign policy priorities in a Romney administration, framing them as areas where it was necessary to fix Obama's missteps. These include a new policy to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, the importance of channeling China in a direction of peaceful competition rather than aggression, the need to reestablish the strength of traditional allies, the need for the United States to play a larger leadership role in the international community, and the need to reverse Obama-era defense cuts and restore military strength.
"Governor Romney believes that the Obama administration has pursued a policy of weakness across the spectrum of areas," Talent said.
Richard Ellis/Getty Images
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates championed a rebalancing of foreign policy funding away from the military, arguing that the United States should pool soldiers' and diplomats' shared resources to better manage projects in warzones. Now, after his departure, the first true test of that idea is going into effect.
Gates, who famously warned in 2008 of the "creeping militarization" of U.S. foreign policy, was talking about his idea for a new $2 billion pooled fund that State and Defense would share for security capacity building, stabilization, and conflict prevention in dangerous areas of the world, where both the military and the diplomatic core operate, until his departure this year.
The Obama administration acted on that idea this year by proposing a $50 million starter fund in its fiscal 2012 budget request which it called the Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF), meant for responding to "urgent and emergent challenges." The idea is that approval to spend the money would require the approval of both secretaries, but the State Department would be more or less in charge.
"Secretary Gates called for pooled funding and this is the direct result of that and the first test of whether State and DOD can really work together on this kind of thing," a senior State Department official said in an interview with The Cable. "This is really an example of how State and DOD, rather than engage in bureaucratic gamesmanship, have decided to work together to solve these problems."
"For us, GSCF is the new model," the official said. "This is the model we think makes the most sense, particularly in budget-constrained times."
The new GSCF office will have a State Department official as a director, a Pentagon official as a deputy director, and will be located at the State Department, the official said. Nobody has been selected for the positions yet. The rough model for the office is the interagency "Pakistan cell," which manages various aspects of Pakistan funding now.
There's only one hitch: Congress. In the fiscal 2012 budget bill passed by Congress last week and signed by President Barack Obama, the $50 million to start GCSF was omitted. But Congress did give the administration the authority to start the project using funding from other accounts, including money earmarked for the Pakistani military.
Accordingly, GSCF will be funded this year by money appropriated to Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and what's called the Pakistani Counterinsurgency Capability Fund (PCCF), a pool of cash that is used to reimburse the Pakistani military for money it spends helping the United States fight Islamic extremists.
The PCCF program, meanwhile, is another ongoing saga in the jostling between State and DOD for control over money and power in countries where they both operate.
Originally housed at the Pentagon as the Pakistani Counterinsurgency Fund (PCF), the program was originally supposed to be transferred over to State in 2009. But at that time, State didn't have the capacity to manage it, so the transfer was delayed. In 2010, State finally took over the program, only to lose it again in 2011 during the last-minute budget slashing that accompanied the April 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling. Now for 2012, the program is back at State again.
State will receive $850 million for PCCF in fiscal 2012, and this year State put the funding in its Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. By placing the program in the OCO account, the money is not counted as part of State's regular budget and therefore is more protected from the budget-cutting knives on Capitol Hill. The Pentagon is still heavily involved: In order to get the money to the Pakistani military, State actually passes the funds through the Pentagon, which implements the program on the ground by doling out the cash to the Pakistani army.
Passing the PCCF funds though the Pentagon this year will subject them to new policy restrictions in the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill that require the administration to certify that Pakistan is using the money to fight extremists, rather than to build up conventional forces opposite India.
"The administration did have concerns that [these new restrictions] would hinder the flexibility of the program, but the Congress, obviously concerned about the nature of our relationship with Pakistan, insisted on these requirements," the State Department official said.
But how do you certify the Pakistanis are spending the money as intended? "That's going to be the issue," the official said.
The Senate was all set to consider next year's funding bill for the State Department and foreign operations today, but ended up punting on the bill due to a dispute over Cuba policy and a failure to agree on procedure.
Congress has been rushing to complete work on all the appropriations bills for fiscal year 2012, which started almost two months ago, on Oct. 1. The Senate Democratic leadership's strategy was to move the bills in chunks of three at a time, smaller versions of omnibus bills affectionately known as "minibuses." The State Department and foreign ops appropriations bill was part of a minibus that was supposed to be debated beginning today on the Senate floor. But now that minibus has crashed, and Senate consideration of State Department funding has been postponed indefinitely.
Here's what happened. As The Cable reported on Monday, two senators were refusing to give unanimous consent to debate the State Department minibus, which also included the energy and water appropriations and financial services appropriations bills, because of provisions in the financial services bill that would loosen restrictions on U.S. banks doing business in Cuba.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) don't want any restrictions loosened on doing business with Cuba. They both spoke on the floor today against the Cuba provisions, along with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). But Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) spoke in favor of the Cuba provisions, which he had authored, because his state would benefit from the agricultural trade that loosening restrictions would bring.
So even though none of these senators objected to any aspect in the State Department budget, it was caught in the crossfire because it was tied up as part of the "minibus." With Rubio, Menendez, and Nelson objecting to bringing up the minibus with the Cuba language and Moran and Vitter objecting to bringing it up without the language, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) realized he couldn't get unanimous consent for either version of the bill and pulled it from the floor.
Of course, Reid could just call for a cloture vote on whichever version of the bill he prefers, but that would require time Reid doesn't have. With time running out on the continuing resolution (CR) that is temporarily funding the government until Nov. 18, Reid can't afford to spend floor time on individual bills, amendments, or debate.
Requesting a cloture vote would also have opened up the bill to other amendments, unless there was an agreement to limit amendments, which there wasn't. That is actually how the Senate is supposed to work -- but hasn't, for quite a long time.
"This is a result of a dysfunctional appropriations process," one senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable late on Tuesday. "If you are considering appropriations bills in regular order there wouldn't be a problem, but regular order broke down long ago in the Senate and what we saw today was a direct result of utter disregard for regular order and sheer incompetence in running the Senate."
The Senate did actually use the regular procedure to pass the military construction and veteran appropriations bill earlier this year, so there is precedent.
What happens now? Well, the Senate definitely needs to pass a new short-term CR by Friday, which will probably be combined with a different minibus that has already passed the House, the Senate, and has emerged from a House-Senate conference. That minibus is made up of the Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science and Transportation-HUD appropriations bill.
After that, the Senate will move to the defense authorization bill, a policy bill that recommends -- but does not set -- funding levels. The process for that bill is also a mess, because the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) had to rewrite it at the last minute to cut about $20 billion to match the figure reached by Senate defense appropriators. SASC also had to change language on detainee policies to assuage the administration.
"I gave my word that we're going to do the defense authorization bill," Reid said on the floor late on Tuesday. "It hasn't been worked out to satisfaction of everyone, but there comes a time when we have to stop negotiating and move to the legislation, and we're going to do that following our finishing the next minibus we have."
But the failure to pass a bill tonight could mean that State Department funding will be put off for months. The debate over the defense authorization bill could take one or two full weeks of floor time, at which point the Senate will probably have to pass another CR to fund the government past the New Year. That CR could also result in a nasty fight. Also, Congress will have to grapple with the supercommittee's actions around that time, for instance working on legislation to undo the "trigger" that would cut $600 billion from defense if the supercommittee fails to strike a deal.
All of this means that there won't be floor time for things like the State Department funding bill until next January, at the earliest.
"If Senate Dem leaders do want to make defense authorization a priority, that's going to take up most of December, and then we have to deal with the supercommittee, sequestration, another CR ... and we're looking at the very serious possibility of another CR fight around Christmas. That is the most likely scenario," the GOP Senate aide said. "But then again it is the Senate, so everything could change again tomorrow."
The State Department is still trying to convince Congress to restore funding for UNESCO, which was cut off after the U.N. cultural agency's members granted full membership to the Palestinians -- but there is little chance lawmakers will change the provision preventing U.S. funding.
State sent an unofficial memo to key congressional offices today titled, "How the Loss of U.S. Funding Will Impact Important Programs at UNESCO." The memo, which was passed to The Cable by a congressional source, argues that UNESCO programs will have to be cut back severely due to the loss of U.S. funding.
State Department spokespeople have said they are working with Congress in the hopes of amending the laws that cut off U.S. funds to any U.N. organization that admits Palestine as a full member, but there is broad bipartisan support for the funding cut-offs and no real congressional effort to change the law.
"The cut-off in U.S. funding may not directly affect extra-budgetary programs funded by other donors, but it will weaken UNESCO's presence in the field and undermine its ability to take on and manage such projects and programs," the memo stated (emphasis theirs).
UNESCO will lose $240 million of funding for fiscal years 2011, 2012, and 2013 -- roughly 22 percent of its budget -- and will have to scale down programs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, and South Sudan, the memo states.
The memo also lists several ways that UNESCO supports U.S. national security interests. These include "sustain[ing] the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring" and democratic values around the world, promoting nation-building in South Sudan, and encouraging Holocaust education in the Middle East and Africa.
Read the full memo after the jump:
Congressional Democrats on the budget-cutting "supercommittee" want to count $1 trillion that the United States will not spend fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next 10 years as "savings," even though there was never a plan to extend the wars that long in the first place.
House Assistant Democratic leader and supercommittee member James Clyburn (D-SC) mentioned this plan on Fox News Sunday, describing it as part of the supercommittee's efforts to agree on $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending cuts over 10 years before its Nov. 23 deadline. Republicans have supported this idea in the past but as of yet, not within the context of the supercommittee's deliberations.
"We believe and the CBO believes that there is around $917 billion to be saved over the next 10 years from the overseas contingency account. And we ought to count that," Clyburn said.
The problem with Clyburn's idea is that the money he is referring to -- emergency spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- was never budgeted to remain at current levels over the next ten years. The money can only be counted as "savings" when compared to CBO projections from last March, which were based on a mathematical formula -- not the actual future costs of the wars.
However, it never has been anybody's plan to maintain current troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next 10 years, so the "savings" are completely illusory.
The White House used this gimmick in September, when it released its $4.4 trillion plan to cut the deficit. The gimmick was also used by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in the plan he released last July to avert a debt-ceiling crisis. Paul Ryan's budget last April also included this savings in its deficit reduction calculation, which was supported by 235 House Republicans and 40 Senate Republicans.
Clyburn also said the supercommittee Democrats are interested in spending the war "savings."
"We ought to use that savings to plow it back in to fix Social Security, that will allow it to be sovereign for another 75 years, to plow it into job creation programs that would get people back to work, and paying taxes, and off of food stamps and off of unemployment," he said.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- which have cost more than $1 trillion since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service -- were completely funded by off-budget borrowing and classified as "emergency spending," meaning that eliminating those costs does not actually return any money to the Treasury.
"Isn't that a classic Washington budget gimmick, to count savings on money that wasn't going to be spent anyway?" asked Fox host Chris Wallace.
Clyburn responded that these savings were more realistic than counting future economic growth as revenue, which is part of the Republican approach inside the supercommittee.
"It sounds to me like you guys have a lot of work to do in 10 days," Wallace said.
A group of House lawmakers is making the case for continuing U.S. support to the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite the Palestinian bid to seek full membership in the United Nations.
"Maintaining U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority is in the essential strategic interest of Israel and the United States," wrote 44 lawmakers, all Democrats, in a letter today to House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee heads Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY). The letter was spearheaded by Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Peter Welch (D-VT).
Ever since the Palestinians began their statehood drive this summer, Congress has been attacking the $550 million of annual aid given to the PA by U.S. taxpayers. For fiscal 2011, Congress had already provided the Palestinians with about $150 million in direct budget support -- also known as cash -- but $200 million in security funding and about $200 million in humanitarian funding has been held up.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL ) released her hold on the security funding last week, but she and Granger are still holding up the non-security funding. Also, Congress is set to consider whether to allocate a whole new tranche of aid to the PA as part of the upcoming negotiations over the fiscal 2012 State and foreign ops spending bill. That bill could come up in the Senate this week or next, leading to a House-Senate conference behind closed doors to iron out a final compromise bill.
"We understand the developments that have led some to call for a suspension or termination of aid to the PA," the 44 lawmakers wrote. "However, these legitimate concerns must be weighed against the essential role that U.S. assistance to the PA plays in providing security and stability for Palestinians and Israelis as well as critical humanitarian relief to the Palestinian people - and the potential consequences if this assistance is terminated."
Currently, the House version of next year's foreign aid bill would terminate all aid to the PA unless the Palestinian government drops its statehood bid at the United Nations and enters into direct negotiations with Israel. The Senate version is less strict; it would only withdraw the funding if the Palestinians actually succeed in joining the United Nations, which isn't likely due to the U.S. veto power at the Security Council. The Senate bill would also give the president a waiver over cutting aid to the PA.
"The prospect of continued assistance depends on the actions of Palestinian leadership, which can choose to pursue a path of direct negotiations rather than a counterproductive and destabilizing push for statehood through the UN and affiliated agencies," Matthew Dennis, spokesperson for Lowey, told The Cable.
"The chairwoman takes the views of all members into consideration," said Matt Leffingwell, spokesman for Granger.
President Barack Obama's administration has been clear that it wants U.S. aid to the PA to continue, because the assistance impacts Israeli security. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, told The Cable last week that he agrees that aid to the PA is important but will fight to end it anyway because of the politics surrounding the issue.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
The Democratic lawmakers who are making the case for the aid, along with some non-governmental organizations such as J Street, want to make sure top appropriators know that there is some support for aid to the Palestinians in Congress.
"The Price-Welch letter puts down a marker that there is a difference of opinion on whether aid to the PA should continue in Congress," Dylan Williams, J Street's director of government affairs, told The Cable today.
Williams said that many of the letter's signers supported House Resolution 268, passed in June, which threatened to cut off aid to the PA if it continued to seek U.N. membership. But seeing as how the Palestinians were able to join UNESCO with overwhelming international support, forcing the United States to stop contributing to that organization, he said those threats no longer makes sense.
"The situation has changed since HRes 268 and the bid to keep the Palestinians away from the United Nations has failed," Williams said.
The war in Iraq may be ending, but the fight over who gets to oversee the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars still being spent there is just heating up.
The Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) -- led by Stuart Bowen -- has been embroiled in a fight with the State Department, which has blocked SIGIR inspectors from assessing State's multi-billion dollar Iraqi police training program.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) reported last week that SIGIR managed to complete the report, which stated that the State Department "does not have a current assessment of Iraqi police forces' capabilities ... such an assessment is essential for effective program targeting."
"The SIGIR audit berated [the State Department] in its first sentence for failing to cooperate in the investigation, which ‘resulted in limited access to key officials and documents,'" POGO noted. "The IG was still able to complete the investigation however, through ‘limited discussions' and ‘documents obtained from other sources.'"
On Tuesday, five U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to urge her department to cooperate with SIGIR and provide SIGIR with requested information and documents.
"The State Department is explicitly directed to provide whatever information or assistance is needed by SIGIR, so long as SIGIR's request is ‘practicable and not in contravention of any existing law.' In addition, State Department officials are prohibited from ‘prevent[ing] or prohibit[ing] the Inspector General from initiating, carrying out, or completing any audit' related to funds involved in Iraq reconstruction," the senators wrote. "Despite these requirements, the State Department has failed to provide SIGIR with adequate assistance and access to information and documents."
The letter's signatories were Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
"SIGIR is perfectly free ... to audit the reconstruction activities in Iraq. They are not free to audit the base element of the State Department. That is within the jurisdiction of three other entities," Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy told the Wartime Contracting Commission in a hearing last month.
The senators wrote that SIGIR "has jurisdiction to audit all Iraq reconstruction funds, including those spent on contracts which may also support other State Department activities."
"It is absurd for Under Secretary Kennedy, or whoever it is, to suggest that the State Department is suffering from too much oversight in Iraq," a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable today. "He should take some time and read the Commission on Wartime Contracting report."
Full text of the senators' letter after the jump:
Former President George W. Bush's administration signed an agreement in 2008 to withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, but policymakers in that administration always expected that agreement to be renegotiated to allow for an extension beyond that deadline, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Cable.
When President Barack Obama announced on Oct. 21 that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by Dec. 31, his top advisors contended that since the Bush administration had signed the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), both administrations believed that all troops should be withdrawn by the end of the year. This was part of the Obama administration's drive to de-emphasize their failed negotiations to renegotiate that agreement and frame the withdrawal as the fulfillment of a campaign promise to end the Iraq war.
"The security agreements negotiated and signed in 2008 by the Bush administration stipulated this date of December 31, 2008, as the end of the military presence. So that has been in law now or been in force now for several years," Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough told reporters on Oct. 21. "So it's difficult to rebut the proposition that this was a known date."
Rice, speaking with The Cable to promote her new book No Higher Honor, said today that when the Bush administration signed the agreement, it was understood by both the U.S. and Iraqi governments that there would be follow-up negotiations aimed at extending the deadline -- a step that would be in both the U.S. and Iraqi interest.
"There was an expectation that we would negotiate something that looked like a residual force for our training with the Iraqis," Rice said. "Everybody believed it would be better if there was some kind of residual force."
Rice said the Iraqi government, despite SOFA's Jan. 2012 end date, was not only open to a new agreement that would include an extension for U.S. troops, but expected that a new agreement would eventually be signed.
"We certainly understood that the Iraqis preserved that option and everybody believed that option was going to be exercised," Rice said.
It's been widely reported that the negotiations between the Obama administration and the Iraqi government this year broke down over the issue of immunity for U.S. troops in post-2011 Iraq. The Obama administration had demanded that immunity be granted by the Iraqi Council of Representatives, the country's primary legislative body, which was unwilling to do so for political reasons.
Rice said that she didn't understand why the Obama administration was unable to reach an agreement on immunity with the Iraqis, considering that the previous SOFA granted immunity to U.S. soldiers and was passed overwhelmingly by the Iraqi parliament at the time.
"We did manage to negotiate an immunity clause that was acceptable to the Iraqis and acceptable to the Pentagon. I don't know what happened in these negotiations," Rice said.
Overall, Rice said that while the Iraqi Army is making progress, it still has flaws that U.S. forces could help remedy, and the wholesale withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq sends the wrong signal to the region.
"They continue to need help on the counterterrorism side and it would have been a good message to Iran [to keep some U.S. forces there]," Rice said. "That would have been a preferable option."
Tonight, when Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad comes to Washington to speak at the annual gala of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), he will be endorsing an organization that is punching well above its weight in the U.S. policy debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
ATFP, a non-profit, moderate pro-Palestinian organization that has been in existence since 2003, has only five permanent staff members in its downtown D.C. office, but has managed to vault itself to the fore of the Washington foreign policy discussion over the Middle East peace process. "They've been critical in getting sustained and high levels of support from both Republican and Democratic administrations," an administration official told The Cable. "They have pretty high access, they can pass messages, they can work quietly with the Hill, they're not media attention seekers, they are trusted and they try to work behind the scenes."
ATFP's willingness to play the Washington game, on Washington's terms, has earned it both praise and scorn, but there is no doubt that it has given the organization a prominence in the Israeli-Palestinian debate that other pro-Palestinian groups have failed to achieve over the years.
The group is led by president and founder Dr. Ziad J. Asali, Ghaith Al-Omari, a former foreign policy advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Senior Fellow Hussein Ibish. The trio has managed to attract high-level administration favor (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton keynoted their gala last year) and praise from the pro-Israel community. The downside of their strategy, however, has been a notable absence of grassroots Palestinian support and a recent backlash from parts of the Palestinian establishment, including a break in relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington.
"We have chosen to work within the establishment," Omari said in an interview with The Cable. "Basically we believe the two-state solution is in the U.S. national interest. When we came up with this mission nine years ago it was groundbreaking. Now it is policy."
Omari noted that ATFP has framed its policies in terms of the U.S. national interest and its willingness to engage with parts of the Washington establishment that other pro-Palestinian groups have neglected.
"What we have discovered, much to our surprise, is that we were knocking on open doors," Omari said. He coined the strategy as one of "mainstreaming Palestine."
Some media reports have compared the group to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) because of ATFP's lobbying tenacity on Capitol Hill and its interwoven relationships with administration officials and Washington interest groups on all sides of the political divide. But Omari rejects that comparison.
"We are very different from AIPAC. We're not lobbyists, we're a non-profit organization," he said. "I wish we had the Palestinian-American community as such an organized political presence."
ATFP's policy positions often deviate from the orthodoxy within the Palestinian community. The group's board narrowly voted to stay neutral on the issue of Abbas's bid to seek member state status for Palestine at the United Nations (a bid Fayyad was rumored to oppose). It also doesn't currently support the idea of a unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Omari said.
But can ATFP help defend against congressional cuts in U.S. funding for Palestinian institutions? That's the main mission of the group right now, he said.
"There are tons of pro-Israel organizations in Washington that engage in the debate; in the pro-Palestinian community I could argue we are the only one," he said. "There is a hunger in this town for a voice that understands the Palestinians and can speak about their interests in a way that takes into account the way that Washington operates."
ATFP's clash with the Palestinian establishment has come into public view in recent weeks. Board member Daoud Kuttab broke ties with the group after it refused to endorse Abbas's U.N. strategy.
"The paternalistic attitude that Americans including American Palestinians know what is best for Palestinians and their leadership is an arrogant attitude that I can't agree to be part of," he wrote. "Whenever a lobbying organization reaches the position that it has to worry about its own existence and how the local powers consider it, that is the day that such an organization has lost its mission statement."
Then, last week, Politico reported that the PLO mission in Washington led by Maen Rashid Areikat had sent a letter to ATFP announcing that the mission was severing all ties to the group.
In an interview, Ibish confirmed the existence of the letter but said it didn't make sense to him because ATFP never had formal ties to the PLO mission in the first place.
"Why the PLO sent us this cryptic letter and gives no context whatsoever is really something that I can't explain," Ibish said.
Like Omari, Ibish rejected the comparison to AIPAC. "It's in a sense flattering. I think if we had the kind of resources they do, we'd probably look more like WINEP [Washington Institute for Near East Policy] than AIPAC."
Ibish said that the majority of ATFP's funding comes from Arab sources, but he acknowledged that the organization has Jewish donors as well, who are welcome to give as long as they support ATFP's goal of a two-state solution.
Josh Block, former spokesman for AIPAC, said that ATFP is respected in Washington policy-making circles, including the pro-Israel community, "because they are seen as serious players with ideas and access -- on the Hill, with the White House, and in the region."
"One of the things that distinguishes them from the other actors in the Arab pro-Palestinian camp is their willingness to challenge corruption, condemn terrorism without equivocation and meet with other stakeholders without precondition," he said. "Credibility in Washington is hard to come by, and Ziad Asali has certainly earned it."
Even Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who would have attended tonight's gala if not for the fact that he was observing the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, had kind words for the group.
"We interact very frequently and on a friendly basis with the ATFP," he said. "We view them as partners and as friends."
And if you are at the gala tonight, stop by and say hello to your humble Cable guy. I'm usually seated somewhere near the back of the room.
All the GOP presidential candidates agree on one thing: The United States should cut foreign assistance and international humanitarian assistance programs. Their only differences are over how much.
"The American people are suffering in our country right now. Why do we continue to send foreign aid to other countries when we need all the help we can get for ourselves?" asked a woman in the audience of Tuesday's GOP primary debate in Las Vegas.
Rick Perry started off the responses by calling for "a very serious discussion about defunding the United Nations." The crowd cheered and applauded.
Calling the Palestinian drive to seek member status at the United Nations in September a travesty, Perry said that was reason enough to stop contributing. "Why are we funding that organization?" he asked.
Mitt Romney said that defense-related portions of the foreign aid budget should be transferred to the Defense Department and humanitarian aid responsibilities should be ceded to the Chinese government.
"I happen to think it doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give it to another country for humanitarian aid. We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people that are -- and think of that borrowed money," he said to applause from the crowd.
If either of the leading candidates were somewhat measured, Ron Paul was not. He said that foreign aid "should be the easiest thing to cut" because it's not explicitly authorized in the Constitution. "To me, foreign aid is taking money from poor people in this country and giving it to rich people in poor countries, and it becomes weapons of war, essentially, no matter how well motivated it is," he said.
Paul also said we should cut all foreign aid to Israel. Michele Bachmann disagreed, taking the opportunity to make the case that President Barack Obama is the first president to put "daylight" between the United States and Israel.
"That's heavily contributed to the current hostilities that we see in the Middle East region," she said, reprising her criticism of the entire Arab Spring.
The candidates also weighed in on defense spending. Bachmann was asked if defense spending should be on the table for cuts, and wavered somewhat, opening the door to cuts while saying that $500 billion in defense budget cuts that would be triggered if the congressional supercommittee can't come to a deal to find at least $1.2 trillion in cuts was too much.
Newt Gingrich, calling himself a "cheap hawk," said that the supercommittee was not qualified to make such decisions and said the defense budget should be driven by strategy and threats, not arbitrary numbers.
"The idea that you'll have a bunch [of] historically illiterate politicians who have no sophistication about national security trying to make a numerical decision about the size of the defense budget tells you everything you need to know about the bankruptcy of the current elite in this country -- in both parties," he said.
For FP Passport's compilation of the debate's foreign policy highlights, click here.
The Obama administration is scrambling right now to find a way around the fact that existing U.S. law could force the United States to stop participating in the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO if the Palestinians are given member state status, setting a precedent that could repeat itself in a host of other U.N. organizations.
The administration is contending with a 1994 law (P.L. 103-236, Title IV), which would bar U.S. contributions "to any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood."
Another law (P.L. 101-246, Title IV), from 1990, states that, "No funds authorized to be appropriated by this act or any other act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states."
The Palestinians cleared a hurdle this week when the UNESCO executive board approved their bid to join the organization, sending the matter to a vote by UNESCO's 193-nation General Conference. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized UNESCO on Wednesday for taking up the issue.
"I think that that is a very odd procedure indeed and would urge the governing body of UNESCO to think again before proceeding with that vote," Clinton told reporters in the Dominican Republic.
She acknowledged the "strong legislative prohibition that prevents the United States from funding organizations that jump the gun, so to speak, in recognizing entities before they are fully ready for such recognition."
The U.S. has not yet paid their bills on UNESCO for 2011, about $80 million, which is 22 percent of UNESCO's budget. If the law is triggered and the U.S. does not pay in 2012, the U.S. would lose its vote in the organization. Plus, UNESCO officials have told the U.S. that if U.S. funds are not expected over the next two years, they may have to initiate massive layoffs beginning in January to account for the shortfall in funds.
Palestinian membership in UNESCO would also grant them immediate membership in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The U.S. would have to stop contributing to WIPO but America is not a member of UNIDO.
We're told that the State Department is currently having their attorneys draft a legal opinion on how U.S. laws would affect U.S. participations in U.N. bodies that grant the Palestinians member state status. Their ruling will have ramifications not only for UNESCO, but for all other U.N. specialized agencies that the PLO is expected to submit their application to, such as the IAEA, WTO, WHO, World Bank, and others.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that the administration was "still working" on what the legislative triggers regarding funding would mean. But a State Department official said that the administration has not been able to find a way around the law.
"We have a suicide vest padlocked around our torso and the Palestinians have the remote control," the State Department official said. "They get to decide whether they blow us up or not. It's 100 percent up to them."
Meanwhile, Congress is ratcheting up its own involvement on the issue. Later today, 10 House appropriators will call on UNESCO not to move forward with consideration of Palestinian membership, in a letter to UNESCO Executive Director Irina Bokova obtained by The Cable.
"We... respectfully request that you do everything in your power to ensure that the Palestine Liberation Organization's application to become a Member State does not come before the UNESCO General Conference," states the letter, prepared by the office of Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ). "Any recognition of Palestine as a Member State would not only jeopardize the hope for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but would endanger the United States' contribution to UNESCO."
Signatories of the letter include the heads of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), Jerry Lewis (R-CA), Tom Cole (R-OK), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), Steve Austria (R-IL), Charles Dent (R-PA), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), and Adam Schiff (D-CA).
One senior Republican staffer pointed out the irony that it was President George W. Bush who brought the United States back into UNESCO, and now the United States might be forced to leave the organization by Obama -- a president who came to office promising to reverse what he argued was Bush's tendency to ignore the international community.
"Remember, we joined UNESCO in part because we needed them to help de-radicalize textbooks particularly in the Muslim world after 9/11 and as a platform to counter expanding anti-American attitudes in academia," the staffer said "And now, by de-funding UNESCO, we lose all the leverage we had gained."
President Obama opined on Chinese currency legislation, Pakistani double dealing, and the European debt crisis during his Thursday morning press conference, which was supposed to focus on his jobs bill. Here are the foreign policy highlights of his remarks.
On Chinese currency manipulation:
Obviously we've been seeing a remarkable transformation of China over the last two decades, and it's helped to lift millions of people out of poverty in China. We have stabilized our relationship with China in a healthy way. But what is also true is that China has been very aggressive in gaming the trading system to its advantage and to the disadvantage of other countries, particularly the United States. And I have said that publicly but I've also said it privately to Chinese leaders.
And currency manipulation is one example of it, or at least intervening in the currency markets in ways that have led their currency to be valued lower than the market would normally dictate. And that makes their exports cheaper and that makes our exports to them more expensive. So we've seen some improvement, some slight appreciation over the last year, but it's not enough.
It's not just currency, though. We've also seen, for example, you know, intellectual property, technologies that were created by U.S. companies with a lot of investment, a lot of up-front capital, taken, not protected properly, by Chinese firms. And we've pushed China on that issue as well. Ultimately, I think that you can have a win-win trading relationship with China. I'm very pleased that we're going to be able to potentially get a trade deal with South Korea. But I believe what I think most Americans believe, which is trade is great as long as everybody is playing by the same rules.
On the legislation to penalize currently manipulation currently being considered by Congress:
My main concern -- and I've expressed this to Senator Schumer -- is whatever tools we put in place, let's make sure that these are tools that can actually work, that they're consistent with our international treaties and obligations. I don't want a situation where we're just passing laws that are symbolic, knowing that they're probably not going to be upheld by the World Trade Organization for example, and then suddenly U.S. companies are subject to a whole bunch of sanctions. We've got a -- I think we've got a strong case to make, but we've just got to make sure that we do it in a way that's going to be effective.
Last point is, my administration has actually been more aggressive than any in recent years in going after some of these practices. We've brought very aggressive enforcement actions against China for violations in the tire case for example, where it's been upheld by the World Trade Organization that they were engaging in unfair trading practices, and that's given companies here in the United States a lot of relief.
So, you know, my overall goal is, I believe U.S. companies, U.S. workers, we can compete with anybody in the world. I think we -- we can make the best products. And a huge part of us winning the future, a huge part of rebuilding this economy on a firm basis -- that's not just reliant on, you know, maxed-out credit cards and a housing bubble and financial speculation, but is -- is dependent on us making things and selling things -- I am absolutely confident that we can win that competition. But in order to do it, we've got to make sure that we're aggressive in looking out for the interests of American workers and American businesses, and that everybody's playing by the same rules, and that we're not getting -- getting cheated in the process.
On Pakistan's hedging strategy:
With respect to Pakistan, I have said that my number-one goal is to make sure that al-Qaida cannot attack the U.S. homeland and cannot affect U.S. interests around the world. And we have done an outstanding job, I think, in going after directly al-Qaida in this border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. We could not have been as successful as we have been without the cooperation of the Pakistan government. And so on a whole range of issues, they have been an effective partner with us.
What is also true is that our goal of being able to transition out of Afghanistan and leave a stable government behind -- one that is independent, one that is respectful of human rights, one that is democratic -- that Pakistan I think has been more ambivalent about some of our goals there. And you know, I think that they have hedged their bets in terms of what Afghanistan would look like, and part of hedging their bets is having interactions with some of the unsavory characters who they think might end up regaining power in Afghanistan after coalition forces have left.
What we've tried to persuade Pakistan of is that it is in their interest to have a stable Afghanistan; that they should not be feeling threatened by a stable, independent Afghanistan. We've tried to get the conversations between Afghans and Pakistans (sic) going more effectively than they have been in the past. But we've still got more work to do. And there is no doubt that there's some connections that the Pakistani military and intelligence services have with certain individuals that we find trouble (sic). And I've said that publicly and I've said it privately to Pakistani officials as well.
On the Pakistan-India relationship:
[The Pakistanis] see their security interests threatened by an independent Afghanistan, in part because they think it will ally itself to India, and Pakistan still considers India their mortal enemy. Part of what we want to do is actually get Pakistan to realize that a peaceful approach towards India would be in everybody's interests and would help Pakistan actually develop -- because one of the biggest problems we have in Pakistan right now is poverty, illiteracy, a lack of development, you know, civil institutions that aren't strong enough to deliver for the Pakistani people. And in that environment you've seen extremism grow. You've seen militancy grow that doesn't just threaten our efforts in Afghanistan but also threatens the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people as well.
So trying to get that reorientation is something that we're continuing to work on. It's -- it's not easy.
On cutting off aid to Pakistan:
You know, we will constantly evaluate our relationship with Pakistan, based on, is overall this helping to protect Americans and our interests? We have a great desire to help the Pakistani people strengthen their own society and their own government. And so, you know, I'd be hesitant to punish, you know, aid for flood victims in Pakistan because of poor decisions by their intelligence services. But there's no doubt that, you know, we're not going to feel comfortable with a long-term strategic relationship with Pakistan if we don't think that they're mindful of our interests as well.
On the European debt crisis:
The biggest headwind the American economy is facing right now is uncertainty about Europe, because it is affecting global markets. The slow-down that we're seeing is not just happening here in the United States: It's happening everywhere. Even in some of the emerging markets like China you're seeing greater caution, less investment, deep concern.
I speak frequently with Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy. They are mindful of these challenges. I think they want to act to prevent a sovereign debt crisis from spinning out of control, or seeing the potential breakup of the euro. I think they're very committed to the European project. But their politics is tough because, essentially, they've got to get agreement with not only their own parliaments, they've got to get agreement with 20 parliaments, or 24 parliaments, or 27 parliaments. And engineering that kind of coordinated action is very difficult.
You know, but what I've been seeing over the last month is a recognition by European leaders of the urgency of the situation. And nobody's, obviously, going to be affected more than they will be if the situation there spins out of control. So I'm confident that they want to get this done. I think there are some technical issues that they're working on in terms of how they get a big enough -- how do they get enough fire power to let the markets know that they're going to be standing behind euro members whose -- you know, who may be in a weaker position. But they've got to act fast.
And we've got a G-20 meeting coming up in November. My strong hope is that by the time of that G-20 meeting, that they have a very clear, concrete plan of action that is sufficient to the task.
The Cable reported yesterday that President Barack Obama waived penalties on several countries that recruit child soldiers for the second year in a row. Today, lawmakers moved to ensure that the administration won't keep funding governments that use child soldiers next year.
The administration waived penalties mandated under the Child Soldiers Protection Act (CSPA) against Yemen, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The administration didn't provide a justification for not penalizing South Sudan, because the 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which was released on June 27 and triggers the penalties, names "Sudan," not "South Sudan," as an abuser. South Sudan was declared independent on July 9, 12 days after the report came out.
"South Sudan wasn't a country during the reporting period and isn't subject to the CSPA; there are no penalties to waive under the law," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.
That explanation struck several congressional aides and human rights activists we spoke with today as too clever by half. After all, the TIP report was referring to use of child soldiers by the government of "Southern Sudan" and the Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which hasn't stopped the practice and will receive $100 million of U.S. taxpayers' money this year.
"They're using a legal and technical loophole to continue to build up partnership with a government that needs to be reminded how serious this problem is," said Sarah Margon, associate director for sustainable security and peace building at the Center for American Progress. "It's exactly how not to establish the message that they need to set up their government with full respect for human rights and transparency."
"At the time the TIP report came out, it was obvious South Sudan was going to be an independent country so any responsible person would have taken that into consideration," one senior House aide told The Cable. "Apart from the law, the White House still had discretion to address the issue as a policy matter and it chose not to condition any of the aid on the SPLA completing its demobilization of child soldiers."
The administration made the case that Chad has made sufficient progress on the child soldiers issue, and is no longer subject to penalties. "We've seen the government take concrete steps over the last year to implement policies and mechanisms to prohibit and prevent future government or government-supported use of child soldiers," Vietor said.
"The U.N.'s Chad Country Task Force has reported no verified cases of child soldiers in 2011, and Chad has put in place safeguards to prevent further use or recruitment of child soldiers. The president's reinstatement of assistance to Chad reflects this progress," he explained.
But several activists noted that the United Nations and State Department both kept Chad on their list of countries violating international standards for child recruitment this year, and that international monitors' limited access in Chad calls into question anybody's ability to verify whether the government has stopped using child soldiers.
Several aides and activists were angry at the administration for failing to adequately consult or even inform them of the waivers before they were announced. Administration officials briefed congressional staffers and NGO leaders yesterday, and journalists not at all.
"It also says something about the State Department's willingness to engage with civil society actors," said Margon. "It's a black mark on them in their ability to work with friends and allies on these issues. Why alienate the people who want to work with you on this stuff? It just doesn't make any sense."
Congress has no intention of letting this scenario play out again next year. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, successfully added an amendment to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act reauthorization bill today that would force the administration to give Congress 15 days notice before issuing waivers for the child-soldier penalties.
The amendment would also expand the law to include peacekeeping funds given to violator countries (such as Somalia), and force the White House to show that countries are making progress toward eliminating the use of child soldiers before receiving a waiver. Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and John Boozman (R-AR) have already introduced a companion measure in the Senate.
Not all Capitol Hill staffers were completely unsympathetic to the administration's arguments, however.
One Senate aide referred to the progress noted by the Obama administration in Chad and the partial cut of U.S. military assistance in the DRC as "welcome steps -- steps that might not have occurred without the force of the Child Soldier Prevention Act," noting that they "will require serious follow up attention."
But overall, the administration's roll out of the decision was panned by the NGO and human rights communities, which see the administration's action as undermining the intent of the legislation.
"At a time when Congress is locked in one of the most difficult budget battles I've ever seen, it is shameful that a portion of federal funding continues to help support governments who are abusing children," said Jesse Eaves, World Vision's policy advisor for children in crisis. "This is a very weak decision by an administration paralyzed with inaction. And the worst part is that thousands of children around the world -- not the politicians in the White House or the State Department -- are the ones who will suffer."
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Dan Burton (R-IN) have started a new congressional caucus to increase engagement with Russia and to push for action to promote Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization.
Meeks and Burton, the chairs of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, started the Congressional Russia Caucus last month after returning from a trip to Moscow. They are the only two members of the caucus, just yet, but they're canvassing for new members now. They plan to build connections with Russian officials, increase legislative exchanges with the Russian Duma, and advocate for the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a 1974 U.S. law that prevents the United States from granting Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status.
"When you think about Russia, they are an important nation in an important part of the world. And we have to make sure we begin to work with them in a post-Cold War way," Meeks told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday.
Meeks said he has been coordinating with the Obama administration, which is supporting Russia's WTO bid as part of its overall effort to reset relations with Russia.
"The administration was very appreciative of us starting this caucus; they thought it was a good idea. They said they looked forward to working with us," Meeks said.
Both Meeks and Burton said they were encouraged to start the caucus after meeting with American businessmen and members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow. Both denied they had benefited financially as a result of their efforts on behalf of the U.S.-Russia relationship.
"We want to engage Russians on economics and trade affairs," Burton said in a Tuesday interview with The Cable. Regarding the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, Burton said, "That's something that the Congress has to do for the U.S. to get all the benefits of Russia joining the WTO. If that doesn't happen, Russia would be entitled to all its benefits [as a WTO member] but the U.S. would be disadvantaged."
Russia's accession to the WTO and the repeal of Jackson-Vanik "would be good for Russia and the world," Burton said.
Burton's position on Russian accession to the WTO and Jackson-Vanik puts him in direct opposition to his own committee chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who said in July that repeal of Jackson-Vanik was impossible. And she's no fan of Russia's once-and-future president, Vladimir Putin.
"Putin's present-day Russia is taking on a more Stalin-era appearance every day," Ros-Lehtinen said in July. "The administration must end its string of concessions to the regime in Moscow, which have not resulted in increased cooperation with the U.S. or an improvement in Russia's human rights record."
Meeks and Burton both also said that they could use the caucus to press Russia toward more progress on democratization, human rights, and respect for the rule of law.
"We do care about those things. What we're going to do is open a dialogue on all these things so we can move in the right direction," Burton said.
Honduran President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo will meet President Barack Obama today to renew the friendship between the two countries, and ask for help in fighting Honduras's drug war. The meeting comes two years after the Obama administration sided against the process that brought Lobo to power, before reversing itself and embracing the Lobo presidency.
Lobo sat down for an interview with The Cable on Tuesday to talk about his country's 2009 political crisis, the role of the United States in that drama, and the need for strong ties between Washington and Tegucigalpa, which he described as two like-minded democracies fighting together against drugs and for democracy.
"The United States is our most important foreign ally, it's our strongest relationship and it has been so historically," Lobo said. "That's the way it is and I'm sure it will continue to be so."
Back in 2009, the State Department sided strongly with former President Manuel Zelaya, who was seized by the military and taken out of Honduras in what some called a coup. Zelaya snuck back into Honduras in September 2009 and holed up in the Brazilian embassy while the Obama administration worked to restore him to power.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even met with Zelaya in Washington, suspended aid to Honduras, and revoked the visas of Honduran officials. Later, Honduras was cut off from Millennium Challenge Corporation assistance.
Eventually, it became apparent that the de facto regime in Tegucigalpa, led by Roberto Micheletti, was winning the internal struggle and that new elections would take place. The administration began shifting its position in October 2009 and finally threw Zelaya under the bus when Lobo won the election and Zelaya rejected a deal that would have returned him temporarily to power.
Zelaya hurt his case and alienated the Obama administration when he starting accusing "Israeli mercenaries" of poisoning him with mind-altering gas and radiation while he was inside the Brazilian embassy.
But that's all water under the bridge as far as Lobo is concerned.
"The Unites States has always supported democracy and the rule of law. Whether it is Zelaya, whether it is Lobo, this is what the United States has always looked for," Lobo said. "They always said that as soon as there are elections and the Hondurans elect the president, the situation with Honduras would be the same as it had always been, and this is the way it happened."
Most U.S. trade and assistance to Honduras has been restored, although they are still not able to receive grants from the MCC.
We asked Lobo if he forgave the Obama administration for sticking with Zelaya for so long and initially opposing the process that led to his election.
"They haven't done anything to us!" Lobo exclaimed. "The United States was the only country that maintained an ambassador in Honduras and was extremely helpful in eventually finding a path out of the crisis."
Lobo is meeting with a host of senior officials in addition to Obama, including Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Attorney General Eric Holder. He'll also hold meetings with leaders at the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Dialogue.
His main goal is to seek financial and technical assistance for Honduras's worsening problem with drug cartels, which have increasingly moved into Central America due to the crackdown in Mexico.
"[W]e need to have help to do more investigations and we need to seek reforms in the national police as well as in the armed forces," Lobo said. "We have a strong ally in the U.S. because this is the market, this is where the consumers are. We are basically on the corridor and this we cannot change. We also seek the United States to launch an effective fight against consumption."
On Tuesday morning, Lobo had breakfast with Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Marco Rubio (R-DL). DeMint was key in shifting U.S. policy away from Zelaya and traveled to Honduras in the middle of the crisis, against the State Department's objections, to meet with Zelaya's foes.
DeMint told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday that the Lobo government had made progress in repairing its relationships around the world but that more attention from the United States was needed.
"If we focus on Mexico and Columbia, the criminals move to places like Honduras," DeMint said. "They are a good friend and they are very pro-American and there aren't many pro-American countries left in the world."
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.