Sen. John McCain sounded a civil note at the beginning of his remarks at a Center for a New American Security event on Thursday, April 18. "What Republicans need now is a vigourous contest on ideas on national security and foreign policy," he told a group of military, foreign policy, and business professionals. "This contest can and should be conducted respectfully and without name-calling, which is something an old wacko-bird like me must remember from time to time."
Though he didn't resort to epithets, the rest of the speech featured a series of broadsides against isolationists and non-interventionists of both parties, but especially senators on McCain's own side of the aisle. "When it comes to the politics of national security," McCain said, "my beloved Republican Party has some soul-searching to do."
In particular, McCain singled out his "libertarian friends" who participated in Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster against John Brennan's confirmation as CIA director. "Rather than debate the very real dilemmas of targeted killing," McCain said, "my colleagues chose to focus instead on the theoretical possibility that the president would use a drone to kill Americans on U.S. soil even if they're not engaged in hostilities. As misguided as this exercise was, the political pressures on Republicans to join in were significant, and many ultimately did -- including many who know better."
As a compromise, McCain suggested revising the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which provides the legal justification for the targeted killing program, and codifying drone policy "to preserve, but clarify the commander-in-chief's war powers, while insisting on greater transparency and broader congressional oversight of how these war powers are employed."
He inveighed against the "emergence of a military-industrial-congressional complex that has corrupted and crippled the defense acquisition process," though his critique focused on the runaway costs of projects like the F-35 and Littoral Combat Ship rather than the defense budget writ large, which he has pushed to maintain. He also went after colleagues who have tried to slash foreign aid, pointing out that, "It now seems that every piece of legislation that the Senate considers faces an inevitable amendment that would cut off all our assistance to Egypt or some other critical country. And unfortunately, these kinds of provisions keep winning more and more votes." McCain sounded downright weary as he described "explaining" and "reminding people" of the purpose of foreign aid. "While foreign aid might not make its recipients love us," he noted, "it does further our national security interests and values."
McCain went after colleagues' knee-jerk opposition to the United Nations as well. When asked about the Law of the Sea Treaty, he said, "It's probably not going to come up. Not with the makeup of this Senate, that's the reality. We couldn't even do a disabilities treaty, for God's sake." The problem? Here, McCain got sarcastic. "It's just, you know, it's the 'U.N.' It's the 'U.N.,'" he exclaimed, making air quotes and shrugging.
Despite the critiques of sequestration and U.S. policies on Syria and Iran, President Obama got off pretty easy by comparison. "Right now, the far left and far right in America are coming together in favor of pulling us back from the world," McCain observed. "The president and I have had our differences, many of those differences will persist, but there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my party."
And while McCain seemed uncomfortable with the many rounds of nuclear negotiations with Iran, he said he didn't envy the president's decision on the use of force. "It's going to be probably one of the most difficult decisions the president of the United States has ever had to make," he argued, "and it's very rarely that I'm glad that I'm not the president of the United States, but this is one of [those times]."
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Syrian opposition leaders of all stripes will convene in Qatar next week to form a new leadership body to subsume the opposition Syrian National Council, which is widely viewed as ineffective, consumed by infighting, and little respected on the ground, The Cable has learned.
The State Department has been heavily involved in crafting the new council as part of its effort oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and build a more viable and unified opposition. In September, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a group of Syrian activists who were flown in to New York for a high-level meeting that has not been reported until now.
During the third and final presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama's Syria policy as a failure to show "leadership" in laying the groundwork for the post-Assad era and called for "a form of council that can take the lead in Syria."
In fact, over the last several months, according to U.S. officials and Syrian opposition figures, the State Department has worked to broaden its contacts inside the country, meeting with military commanders and representatives of local governance councils in a bid to bypass the fractious SNC.
Many in the SNC are accordingly frustrated with the level of support they've gotten in Washington. "The Obama administration is trying to systematically undermine the SNC. It's very unfortunate," one SNC leader said told The Cable.
But U.S. officials are equally frustrated with an SNC they say has failed to attract broad support, particularly from the Alawite and Kurdish minorities. The new council is an attempt to change that dynamic. Dozens of Syrian leaders will meet in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Nov. 3 and hope to announce the new council as the legitimate representative of all the major Syrian opposition factions on Nov. 7, one day after the U.S. presidential election.
The Obama administration sees the new council as a potential interim government that could negotiate with both the international community and - down the line - perhaps also the Syrian regime. The SNC will have a minority stake in the new body, but some opposition leaders are still skeptical that the effort will succeed.
The Qatar meeting will include dozens of opposition leaders from inside Syria, including from the provincial revolutionary councils, the local "coordination committees" of activists, and select people from the newly established local administrative councils.
"We call it a proto-parliament. One could also think of it as a continental congress," a senior administration official told The Cable.
U.S. officials and opposition leaders are calling the initiative the "Riad Seif plan," named after the former Syrian parliamentarian and dissident who was imprisoned after he signed the Damascus Declaration on respect for Syrians' human rights in 2005. He was released in 2011, beaten up by a Shabiha gang in Noember 2011, and finally allowed to leave Syria in June 2012.
Seif is central to the formation of the new council and is seen as a figure with broad credibility with both the internal and external Syrian opposition.
"We have to get [the internal opposition] to bless the new political leadership structure they're setting up and not only do we have to get them to bless the structure, but they have to get the names on it," the official said, noting that the exact structure of the council will be determined in Qatar, not before.
"We need to be clear: This is what the Americans support, and if you want to work with us you are going to work with this plan and you're going to do this now," the official said. "We aren't going to waste anymore time. The situation is worsening. We need to do this now."
Secretary Clinton's personal involvement came when she met with select members of the 80-member "Friends of Syria" group in New York, which included internal opposition figures and several foreign ministers from the Friends of Syria "core group" of 22 countries.
"The New York meeting was designed to tee up the idea that there has to be a new political structure, not just the SNC," the official said.
Two SNC leaders attended the meeting along with four representatives of the internal opposition, although only one such leader actually came from inside Syria. Of the other three, one traveled from Sweden, one from Jordan, and one from Kuwait. They all spoke briefly and then left the room while the foreign ministers discussed the road ahead.
"We wanted more [from inside Syria] but we couldn't get them out. The other people were chosen by people from the inside," the official said.
Even bringing that individual from within Syria proved to be a major undertaking, however, because he didn't have a passport. It took high-level intervention between the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The Syrian caught his flight to New York for the meeting -- but only at the last minute.
The U.S. government will be represented at the Nov. 7 Qatar meeting by Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who has been dealing with various opposition groups and weighing in on the composition of the new council, a senior administration official said. For example, Ford pressed for the council to have 50 members in order to include 20 representatives of the internal opposition alongside 15 members of the SNC and 15 other representatives of various Syrian opposition organizations.
The idea is also to create an eight- to 10-member executive body -- made up of technocrats who are not on the new council -- that would be able to work directly with foreign governments on a day-to-day basis on practical items such as the delivery and direction of humanitarian assistance.
"We could finally have an interface to say ‘The needs of this place are greater than the needs of people in that place, so please direct assistance here or there,'" the official said.
The U.S. government is coordinating with governments in Europe and the region to forge consensus on the way ahead with the political opposition inside Syria and outside, the official added.
The Turkish government has been wary of the new effort because it has been heavily invested in the SNC, and the new council intentionally puts the SNC in a minority position.
But Washington's relationship with the SNC has been deteriorating for several months, officials said, and the administration believes the Turks will ultimately come around to embrace the new body.
The mutual recriminations between the Obama administration and the SNC reached a tipping point over the late spring and summer, when two official visits by the SNC to Washington were canceled, one in May and one in July. The May meeting was canceled by the U.S. side because the administration wanted the SNC to visit Moscow first -- a visit that didn't go well, the official said. The July meeting was scuttled by the SNC itself.
But the SNC isn't going away. The group's leaders will hold their own meeting in Qatar on Nov. 3 to establish a new 15-member executive council and potentially a new president.
Other Syrian activists warn that the new council is far from a sure thing.
One external opposition activist with ties to military leaders inside Syria told The Cable there's a risk the Doha meeting could be only the latest example of the opposition's failure to coalesce around a common vision and plan for a post-Assad Syria.
"Right now, the opposition groups are very vague and there's no agreement on who's representing who and what and where," this opposition activist said. "Right now there is a lot of risk that this will be another failed approach that will not achieve anything."
But the Obama administration's efforts go beyond the attempt to stand up the new council.
Although members of Ford's staff have been in communication with representatives of the opposition Free Syrian Army for some time, in July, Ford made his first in-person contact with the FSA during a visit to Cairo. A special conference call was arranged earlier this month between Ford and several FSA commanders, the official confirmed.
The Obama administration is well aware of the growing influence of opposition military commanders and the effort by Islamist extremists, including groups linked to al Qaeda, to gain influence over the direction of Syria's burgeoning civil war.
"There's a rising presence of Islamist extremists. So we need to help these [military council leaders], the majority of them are secular, relatively moderate, and not pursuing an overly vicious agenda," the official said.
But the Obama administration remains reluctant to directly provide weapons to the FSA and has all but ruled out committing U.S. military assets to the fight, despite the hopes of many Syrian opposition figures that the Nov. 6 election will mark an inflection point.
"We are providing to the political opposition all kinds of assistance and we're going to ramp that up, as the secretary has said," the official said. "I don't think there's going to be a big change after the election."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was all set to get his full Senate vote today on his bill to cut all U.S. aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan; and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was set to get a vote on his resolution to establish the sense of the Senate that containment of a nuclear Iran is not an option for U.S. policy.
But the entire deal was derailed by a last-minute effort by Senate leaders to add a new bill to the agreement, a "Sportsman Act" sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), who is up for re-election. Tester's bill would ease restrictions on hunting, fishing, and shooting on federal public lands.
On Thursday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that he had worked out a deal with Paul to move on all of the Senate's outstanding business this afternoon, including a continuing resolution to fund the government past Oct. 1. Under the deal, Paul would get one hour of debate and a vote on his bill to cut all U.S. aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan. There would also be a one-hour debate on the containment resolution, which was also led by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Bob Casey (D-PA). (Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had objected to the deal late Wednesday but lifted his objection Thursday.)
Then suddenly Thursday afternoon, Reid announced there would be no more votes and he took a swipe a Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), accusing him of wanting to avoid his evening debate with challenger Elizabeth Warren.
Multiple senators and staffers said late Thursday that it was Reid, however, who derailed the deal at the last minute by attempting to add the Tester bill, prompting an objection by the GOP Senate leadership.
"Today, [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell has agreed to the same UC [unanimous consent agreement] that was offered last night by Senator Reid, but now Senator Reid wants a UC that includes not just the Paul, Graham, and [continuing resolution] votes, but also a vote on the Tester amendment," Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said Thursday afternoon.
All Senate business is on hold while the leadership of both caucuses negotiates behind closed doors. Paul had repeatedly threatened to oppose unanimous consent to move any legislation unless he got his vote, so without a deal, Senate leaders would have to go through long voting procedures that could keep lawmakers in town well into the weekend.
Senators do hope to leave town this weekend, so a deal Friday is widely expected. A deal would also pave the way for the Senate to confirm a host of ambassadors before leaving Washington, including the nominees for envoy posts in Iraq and Pakistan.
The containment resolution has more than 80 co-sponsors and is expected to pass by a wide margin. The Paul bill to prohibit aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan is not expected to pass.
Lawmakers and Africa hands rallied Thursday behind President Barack Obama's decision to nominate Robert Godec to be the next U.S. ambassador to Kenya.
If confirmed, Godec would follow Obama confidant J. Scott Gration, who resigned in June ahead of a scathing internal report that rated him among the worst ambassadors in the diplomatic corps (Gration insists he was a great ambassador).
Unlike Gration, a political appointee, Godec is a career Foreign Service officer who has previously led an embassy -- in Tunisia -- and has diplomatic experience working in the Nairobi embassy as well. Godec is the charge d'affaires at the Kenya embassy now, and served as the State Department's principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism from 2009 to 2012.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs Subcommittee, told The Cable that he will push to confirm Godec as quickly as possible when the Senate returns for a lame-duck session following the November elections.
"Ambassador Godec is a smart choice and I hope the Senate will move quickly to advance his nomination," said Coons. "Given the emerging threats in the region, his background in counterterrorism and career in the Foreign Service -- even being stationed in Nairobi earlier in his career -- make him unquestionably qualified for this critically important role. One of the United States' top priorities, certainly in the short term, will be helping ensure Kenya's elections in March are free, fair, and peaceful. These elections are critically important not only to Kenya, but to the stability of the region."
The upcoming elections and the potential for explosive political violence are a key focus of Kenya watchers in Washington. Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report stating that politicians seeking office have been complicit on both sides of the growing violence in Kenya's coastal region, with the central government doing little to hold them accountable.
"I'm very pleased to see President Obama officially nominate a new U.S. ambassador to Kenya, particularly a Foreign Service officer with regional and country specific experience like Ambassador Godec. That's going to very important in order to reverse what's been a worrisome U.S. policy of neglect and drift," said Sarah Margon, deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch and co-chair of the Kenya Working Group. "What he's going to need to do is make a clear commitment to a U.S. policy based on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, particularly given the upcoming elections. And he needs to address lack of accountability for the political violence in Kenya."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as a sitting administration official, does not have any role at the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte. But she seems to gone out of her way to avoid the festivities, as she is traveling this week and next to the Cook Islands, Indonesia, China, Timor-Leste, Brunei, and Russia.
"The Cook Islands this year are the hosts of one of the most important institutions of the Pacific called the Pacific Island Forum," a senior State Department official said Thursday. "It's a group that meets yearly with a number of working groups. It's been in existence almost half a century; it's very significant."
It's not Charlotte, but it is a big gathering. Last year, the administration sent 50 officials to the forum, representing 17 different federal agencies. Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides led the delegation in 2011. The official said this trip was part of the administration's rebalancing toward Asia, with a special focus on the smaller countries around the region's periphery.
"Sometimes when we talk about the Asia Pacific, the A is the capital and P is small. And our attempt here is to underscore that we have very strong, enduring, strategic, moral, political, humanitarian interests across the region. It's an area in which we invested substantially historically -- blood and treasure," the official said.
"I just returned about two weeks ago from my own trip around the Pacific," the State Department official said. (Your humble Cable guy did did not attend the briefing, so we have no direct knowledge of the identity of the briefer, but the State Department publicly announced the foreign travel of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell earlier this month.)
Clinton will meet in the Cook Islands with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and will be joined by Pacific Command head Adm. Sam Locklear, the anonymous State Department official said.
In Indonesia, Clinton will meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. Expect her to press Indonesia to work better with other ASEAN countries to come to a consensus position on how to confront China over the South China Sea. ASEAN failed to come to a consensus position at the ASEAN Regional Forum in July, despite Washington's urgings.
Next, Clinton is off to Beijing to meet with President Hu Jintao, Vice President Xi Jinping, and State Councilor Dai Bingguo. She will also have "intense meetings" with Foreign Minister Yang Jiachi, the official said. Topics on the agenda include the South China Sea, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.
"I think the secretary intends very clearly to underscore our continuing interest in maintaining a strong, positive relationship between our two countries," the official said. "We recognize how critically important that is, and one of the challenges before us is to demonstrate how we deal with areas in which we have differing perceptions and where we face challenging issues on the ground, or in this case in the water."
After Beijing, Clinton will go to Timor-Leste and visit a coffee plantation. Next is Brunei, which will host the East Asia Summit in 2013, probably after Clinton leaves office. Then, she will go to an island off the shore of Vladivostok for the APEC summit, where she'll lead a large U.S. delegation and will likely hold a series of high-level bilateral meetings.
Pressed to explain exactly how the administration plans to advance U.S. and allied interests related to the South China Sea dispute on the trip, the official offered few specifics.
"I would say that the United States has sought to articulate a very clear set of principles that animate our strategic approach to the Asia Pacific region, and particularly to the South China Sea. Those will continue," the official said.
"We have had very intense consultations with every key player in the Asia Pacific region. I think one of the messages that we seek to carry on this trip is that it is absolutely essential that cooler heads prevail in every capital, and that great care be taken on these issues, and that, in fact, all of these complex territorial matters have existed for decades. They have been managed generally effectively for decades, and during this period we've seen some of the most manifest Asian prosperity. We need that to continue. This is the cockpit of the global economy, and so care must be taken across the board."
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TAMPA - The time for diplomacy with Iran is quickly coming to an end and the United States should soon "start the clock ticking" as a warning that the United States is prepared and willing to use military force to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, according to Romney campaign co-chair Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Neither the Iranians nor the Israelis see as credible Barack Obama' statements that containment of a nuclear Iran is not an option and that the president would use force to prevent that from happening, Pawlenty told The Cable in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention. A Mitt Romney administration would employ various new tactics to increase U.S. leverage over the Iranians and bolster the credibility of the threat of military action, he said.
"Options would include concluding the negotiations are not working, that the Iranians aren't taking them seriously, bringing them to a temporary or permanent end, and start the clock ticking on other alternatives and letting the Iranians know that," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty's comments come just as the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a new report stating that the Iranian regime has more than doubled the number of centrifuges at its Fordow facility and that Iran had engaged in clean-up activities at its Parchin military complex that would hamper the IAEA's ability to investigate.
Also, a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist named Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was previouslt believed to have been sidelined, is back at work on the Iranian nuclear program,The Wal Street Journal reported today.
The international community has limited visibility into Iran's actions, Pawlenty said. "We don't have the kind of sustained interaction with and relationship with Iran over the last 30 years. We are operating in an information-deprived environment in that regard," he said.
He also warned that Iran may have spread its nuclear research and production facilities into heavily populated civilian areas, which would make a military effort to eliminate Iran's nuclear capabilities much more expansive.
"A lot of the public discourse around how and whether and when there might be military action on Iran focuses on bunker-busting bombs and installations under mountains. That may not only be the only locations where they have those capabilities," said Pawlenty. "Imagine that it's not limited to mountains and rural areas. Imagine that they have created some redundant capabilities and placed them in tunnels under cities. If you want to identify and eliminate those capabilities, it takes on additional challenges."
Pawlenty said the Obama administration resisted imposing crippling sanctions over the last three years and that sanctions even now don't seem to be changing the Iranian regime's calculus.
"We don't know yet, but measured by the Iranians' posture and position, it's fair to say it hasn't yet worked," he said.
Pawlenty endorsed the idea floated by Romney advisor Elliott Abrams last week that now is the time for Congress to pass an authorization of the use of military force against Iran.
"As for me, I thought Elliott had a good idea. I don't know that it would be dispositive, but it couldn't hurt and it probably would help," he said.
In the end, even a military strike might not be effective in eliminating all of Iran's nuclear facilities, Pawlenty cautioned.
"I don't think anybody can say with certainty that if there were an attack on Iran it would have precisely predictable outcomes and consequences," he said. "I think you can increase the likelihood of favorable outcomes, but given the complexity of the situation I don't think you can give any guarantees."
TAMPA - A series of speakers at the Republican National Convention Wednesday ripped into President Barack Obama's foreign policy, but offered few clear insights into how Mitt Romney's might differ.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the only top Bush administration official to speak at the convention, was arguably the star of the evening, speaking to cheers and applause when she said that countries around the world are confused and concerned about Obama's position on crucial national security issues.
"Indeed that is the question of the moment -- ‘Where does America stand?'" she said. "When our friends and our foes, alike, do not know the answer to that question -- clearly and unambiguously -- the world is a chaotic and dangerous place. The U.S. has since the end of World War II had an answer -- we stand for free peoples and free markets, we are willing to support and defend them --- we will sustain a balance of power that favors freedom."
Without referring to the president directly, Rice called on the United States to boost its support for human rights, democracy, and dissident movements in authoritarian. She did, however, repeat the by-now familiar charge, a reference to an administration official's anonymous quote in a New Yorker article, that Obama has been "leading from behind" abroad.
"[I]f we are not inspired to lead again, one of two things will happen -- no one will lead and that will foster chaos --- or others who do not share our values will fill the vacuum," she said. "My fellow Americans, we do not have a choice. We cannot be reluctant to lead -- and one cannot lead from behind."
Rice indirectly criticized the Obama administration for failing to pursue new free trade agreements, moving too slowly to secure new sources of energy, and mishandling the economy. She touted the idea of "American exceptionalism" and said that a Romney administration wojuld restore American power by bolstering economic growth and drawing clearer distinctions between friends and enemies.
"Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan understand this reality -- that our leadership abroad and our well being at home are inextricably linked. They know what needs to be done. Our friends and allies must be able to trust us. From Israel to Poland to the Philippines to Colombia and across the world -- they must know that we are reliable and consistent and determined. And our adversaries must have no reason to doubt our resolve -- because peace really does come through strength. Our military capability and technological advantage will be safe in Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's hands," she said.
Rice referenced the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the beginning of her remarks, but didn't mention the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or any of the controversial counterterrorism policies that she presided over as national security advisor and secretary of state.
She said that under a Romney administration, the United States will remain the most powerful country on Earth but didn't get into the details of how the former Massachusetts governor would tackle critical challenges such as the crisis in Syria, Iran's nuclear program, or the Middle East conflict.
"Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have the experience and the integrity and the vision to lead us -- they know who we are, what we want to be and what we offer the world," she said.
Earlier in the evening, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) lashed out at Obama's handling of national security and foreign policy in more explicit language and said that Romney's election was needed to maintain world peace and stability.
"His election represents our best hopes for our country and the world," McCain said. "Unfortunately, for four years, we've drifted away from our proudest traditions of global leadership -- traditions that are truly bipartisan. We've let the challenges we face, both at home and abroad, become harder to solve. We can't afford to stay on that course any longer."
McCain criticized Obama for setting a timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, a timeline Romney has endorsed, and accused the president of slashing funding for the military and abandoning the cause of human rights.
"In other times, when other courageous people fought for their freedom against sworn enemies of the United States, American presidents -- both Republicans and Democrats -- have acted to help them prevail," he said. "Sadly, for the lonely voices of dissent in Syria, and Iran, and elsewhere, who feel forgotten in their darkness, and sadly for us, as well, our president is not being true to our values."
The Romney campaign has been careful to avoid spelling out specific prescriptions on international affairs, preferring instead to touch on broad themes. Analysts and reporters have scrutinized his statements and those of his advisors, trying to discern whether the candidate is more of a foreign-policy realist or a neoconservative at heart.
In an interview with The Cable Wednesday, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty explained that Romney subscribes to the "Mitt Romney school" of foreign policy.
"Knowing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan quite well, I would say to you that they are directionally and foundationally sturdy and sound, and quite Reaganesque in that regard," Pawlenty said. "Mitt Romney is a prolific reader and a student of history ... I'm highly confident it will not be amateur hour."
The biggest looming question about how a President Mitt Romney would steer the American ship of state is whether he would favor the realist tendencies of the Republican Party establishment or the neoconservative leanings of its younger generation.
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, mooted by some as a possible secretary of state in a Romney administration, told The Cable in an exclusive interview Wednesday that Romney won't choose either side and would rather chart his own foreign-policy vision based on his core beliefs about how the world works and what American's role should be in it.
"I would put him in the Mitt Romney school," Pawlenty when asked to which school of foreign policy the former governor adheres.
Romney won't choose between one camp or the other and will chart out his policies on international issues on a case-by-case basis, Pawlenty said. But the evidence so far shows that Romney is more certainly more hawkish and aggressive than President Barack Obama, he said.
"If you look at [Romney's] philosophical and directional comments and policy positions, you see him speak to the importance of a strong America and that strength being backed up by the capabilities provided by a robust funding of the military," Pawlenty said.
"I think you've seen Romney take a more robust approach [than Obama] on issues such as how you deal with Russia, how you deal with China, how you deal with arming and equipping the rebels on the ground in Syria without putting American boots on the ground," Pawlenty said. "In terms of where that falls within the gradations of conservative foreign policy, I put him in the Mitt Romney's school, not somebody else's school."
The questions over Romney's foreign-policy core identity is paramount because he has little hands-on experience on international affairs, the former governor's critics say.
At a Wednesday event hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neoconservative-leaning organization, Pawlenty argued that Romney's chief national security credential is his core confidence in his foreign- policy vision and knowledge.
"Knowing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan quite well, I would say to you that they are directionally and foundationally sturdy and sound, and quite Reaganesque in that regard," Pawlenty told the audience. "Mitt Romney is a prolific reader and a student of history ... I'm highly confident it will not be amateur hour."
Pawlenty, the co-chair of Romney's campaign and a top surrogate, holds well-formed foreign policy views on a range of issues and spoke often during his bid for president about his views on foreign policy, which combines a hawkish approach to dealing with enemies with an emphasis on soft power and support for foreign aid.
He is among a few names rumored to be in contention for the job of secretary of state in a future Romney administration, along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass. Lieberman skews toward neoconservatism, Haass toward realism, with Pawlenty somewhere in between. The head of national security transition planning on the Romney campaign's "Readiness Project" is former World Bank President Bob Zoellick, a devout realist who may want the Foggy Bottom job for himself.
Pawlenty said he is not working with the "Readiness Project" in a formal way yet and declined to say whether he would accept a top job in a future Romney administration.
"I don't know what my future holds but I will tell you I'm thoroughly enjoying my time in the private sector," he said.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of The Cable's exclusive interview with Pawlenty, which includes new information on how a Romney administration would deal with the challenges of Iran, Syria, Middle East peace, and the looming defense budget cuts.
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TAMPA - The Democratic Party is planning to feature national security and foreign policy at its convention next week in an unprecedented way, fueling concern here in Tampa that the Romney campaign isn't paying enough attention to those issues.
Despite some think-tank events around town featuring Romney campaign foreign-policy advisors, there was almost no mention of foreign policy or national security Tuesday at the convention itself, outside of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's call for "a second American century." Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was at Mitt Romney's side inside the convention hall Tuesday night and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton was spotted in Romney's VIP box, but that was about it.
That's sure to change tonight with speeches by GOP leaders including Rice, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Sen. John Thune (R-SD), and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Rice said at an event Wednesday afternoon that she will speak about American leadership in her speech. Expect McCain to hammer on the theme that Obama has been leading from behind on foreign policy, an argument he laid out in an essay for Foreign Policy today.
"For the past four years, President Barack Obama has unfortunately pursued policies that are diminishing America's global prestige and influence," McCain wrote. "This is a recipe for America's decline as a great power, and we cannot afford to continue on that course."
GOP foreign-policy hands here in Tampa are concerned that the party and the campaign and losing ground in the foreign-policy debate and are warning that the Romney campaign's strategy of deprioritizing national security in favor of focusing on the economy may leave them unprepared if simmering crises in places like Syria or Iran push themselves to the fore.
"World events are likely to intrude on this presidential race and Republicans will need to be ready with more than just imagery," one GOP official told The Cable. "Hopefully over the last two days the convention will devote some time to national security, especially given the Democrats' plans to do so in Charlotte."
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TAMPA - Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was right when he called Russia America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe" and a Romney administration would confront Moscow on its poor record on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, two top foreign-policy advisors to the GOP candidate said Tuesday.
"Russia is a significant geopolitical foe. Governor Romney recognizes that," Romney advisor Rich Williamson said at a Tuesday afternoon event hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative. "That's not to say they are the same sort of direct military threat as they were."
Williamson, joined on the panel by top advisor Pierre-Richard Prosper, said that the Russian government under Vladimir Putin has made strategic opposition to the West and the United States in particular a premier plank of its agenda. A Romney administration would end the Russian "reset" and confront Russia on Syria, Georgia, Iran, and several other issues, he said.
"They are our foe. They have chosen a path of confrontation, not cooperation, and I think the governor was correct in that even though there are some voices in Washington that find that uncomfortable," he said. "So those who say, ‘Oh gosh, oh golly, Romney said they're our geopolitical foe' don't understand human history. And those who think liberal ideas of engagement will bend actions also don't understand history. We're better to be frank and honest."
Ronald Reagan called Russia an "evil empire" but was still able to negotiate nuclear reductions with the Soviet Union, Williamson said.
"They weren't so precious and sensitive not to work with us when we have mutual interests," he said. "The reset has failed. They are crowding out civil society, they are trampling human rights, and they are opposed to us in a number of interests... We have to reset the failed reset policy."
Prosper focused on the controversial elections that returned Putin to the presidency last December and the ongoing clampdown on opposition and activist groups.
"Russia is calling itself a democracy but it is not behaving like a democracy," he said. "When is the last time we have seen Russia on the side of peace? When is the last time we have seen Russia on the side of humanity?"
Also on the panel were Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khordokovsky, and Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian journalist blacklisted for his support of the Magnitsky bill, legislation to sanction Russian human rights violators that is being linked in Congress to a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status.
The GOP draft platform makes it the official policy of the Republican Party to support passage of the Magnitsky bill.
"Russia should be granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations, but not without sanctions on Russia officials who have used the government to violate human rights," the platform states. "We support enactment of the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act as a condition of expanded trade relations with Russia."
The main group representing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Washington is calling for the United States and the international community to forcibly establish a partial no-fly zone in Syria for the first time since the 18-month revolution began.
The Syrian regime's increased use of air power to attack Syrian cities, combined with the increased control over land by the Syrian rebels, makes the idea viable, said Louay Sakka, co-founder of the Syrian Support Group (SSG), in an interview with The Cable.
The SSG is the main link between the U.S. government and the FSA and has emerged in recent months as the key organization in Washington dealing directly with the internal Syrian political and military leadership.
"This is right now the time for a no-fly zone to take place. We need to stop the fixed-wing and helicopters from attacking," Sakka said. "The regime cannot hold ground without air power or heavy artillery. Things have changed in many ways. The fighter jets cannot attack only the FSA; they have random targeting and that means a lot casualties: children, women, older people, people who have nothing to do with the fight, and they are dying in huge numbers."
The SSG's call for a no fly zone comes just as reports are surfacing that the Syrian military closed off the Damascus suburb of Daraya last week and began a brutal assault resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths. Some 30,000 Syrians fled to neighboring countries last week alone, pushing the external refugee total over the 200,000 mark, according to U.N. figures.
But an administration official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Cable that the White House is still resisting any move that would see U.S. military assets used inside Syria, such as through a no-fly zone, but opponents of intervention are slowly losing ground.
"It's a Donilon call at the end of the day," the official said, referring to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who is leading a complicated interagency policy process on the Syria crisis. "There's not enthusiasm but there are differences of opinion about a no-fly zone," the official said. "There is no rush to do it."
The Assad regime's lack of use of fixed-wing aircraft was cited internally as a reason not to declare at no-fly zone and that reason no longer applies, the official argued. Opponents of a no-fly zone have also argued that the Syrian internal opposition had not formally requested it. That reason is also no longer operative.
"There's a question of whether or not our government is willing to reject the request. Or they could take it into consideration for a long time," the official said. "There's a recognition that some decision has to be made. We are quickly reaching a turning point due to the escalation."
The official confirmed that rebels are taking a serious toll on the regime's armor in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, pushing the regime to rely more heavily on its air superiority and massive artillery bombardments.
"These local rebel groups are gaining in organization and territory but they are there's still a significant gap in their capacity to fight back against the 500-pound bombs being dropped by regime aircraft," the official said, but warned, "No other countries are going to go all in until they see what the Americans are going to do."
The French government is pushing the Obama administration toward a decision, as in Libya a year ago. French President François Hollande said Monday that France would recognize a rebel government if the Syrian opposition declared one, and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian signaled support for a no-fly zone last week.
Sakka said that based on his interactions with Obama administration officials, he believes that U.S. involvement in a no-fly zone is being seriously considered now.
"If we brought it up a few weeks ago [to the administration], their reaction was ‘Don't even think about it.' And now the reaction is ‘We're thinking about it,'" he said. "That's a good step forward. Now we're looking for them to move it from a plan to implementation."
Sakka acknowledges that a no-fly zone would include using foreign military assets to attack Syrian air defenses and perhaps even engage Syrian aircraft directly. Turkey and other countries are ready to move toward that if the United States would agree to the idea, and safe zones already established in Turkey could be expanded to include a 10-kilometer buffer zone along the border inside Syria, he said.
"We need an area inside Syrian soil that we know cannot be attacked by the regime. And that's what we think is doable... This is the minimum required at this stage," Sakka said. "It will be a big mistake down the road not to do this now before the amount of casualties is so big and the amount of destabilization happens that it spreads further outside Syria."
The SSG is working closely with the State Department, especially the office of Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, to increase the U.S. understanding of the internal Syrian opposition. The SSG is also helping various local rebel councils organize into a more coherent chain of command that can communicate effectively both among themselves as well as with outsiders, potentially tackling another key obstacle the United States says stands in the way of more robust and direct American support to the FSA.
The SSG's effort to become the conduit between the U.S. government and the FSA seems to be working. Earlier this summer, the State Department and Treasury Department changed policy to allow the SSG to send cash from the United States to the FSA -- cash the FSA can use for weapons despite the administration's refusal to directly arm the rebels.
One American politician urging intervention is Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who was in Paris last week and met with Le Drian, as well as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, National Security Adviser Paul Jean-Ortiz, Foreign Ministry Political Director Jacques Audibert, Hollande's military advisor, Gen. Benoit Puga, Eric Chevallier, the French ambassador to Syria, and members of the Syrian opposition based in Paris.
"I'm very encouraged by the discussions I had with the French leadership about Syria," Lieberman told The Cable from Paris. "As Assad has sharply escalated his use of attack helicopters and fighter aircraft against the Syrian people in recent weeks, there is an increasingly clear and compelling case for a limited no-fly zone. While this would require no U.S. combat forces on the ground, it could have a strategically significant impact by reinforcing the emerging rebel safe zones in northern Syria and allowing the opposition the space they need to organize politically and establish a transitional government on Syrian soil."
Carjackings, robberies, kidnappings, and militia violence all are on the rise in Libya, prompting the State Department to warn U.S. citizens to stay away from the North African country, nearly a year after Libyan rebels seized the capital Tripoli from Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces.
Ironically, the State Department resumed full consular services for travel to and inside Libya today, but simultaneously advised Americans the country was too dangerous to visit. Militias are rounding up foreigners with little regard to the actual law or due process and the State Department has little influence with them, the department is warning.
"The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Libya," reads the new travel warning issued today. "The incidence of violent crime, especially carjacking and robbery, has become a serious problem. In addition, political violence in the form of assassinations and vehicle bombs has increased in both Benghazi and Tripoli."
The warning is the first the State Department has issued since September 2011 and the first since the July 7 elections in Libya, which saw the Transnational National Council, which has been running the country since Qaddafi's fall, replaced this month by the General National Congress. Those elections were deemed to be free and fair, but now political uncertainly has been replaced by insecurity on the streets of Libya's major cities.
"Despite this progress, violent crime continues to be a problem in Tripoli, Benghazi, and other parts of the country," the travel warning said. "In particular, armed carjacking and robbery are on the rise. In addition, political violence, including car bombings in Tripoli and assassinations of military officers and alleged former regime officials in Benghazi, has increased. Inter-militia conflict can erupt at any time or any place in the country."
The State Department noted the kidnapping of 7 members of the Iranian Red Crescent delegation by an Islamic Libya militia late last month. The delegation had been invited by the government but was being questioned by the militia "to determine whether their activities and intentions aimed to spread the doctrine of Shiite Islam," a Libyan official told AFP.
Islamic extremists are also blamed for a string of attacks on historical and sacred religious sites over the past days aimed at Muslims of the Sufi sect and conducted in some cases with the help of uniformed members of Libya's Interior Ministry. Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A'al resigned due to the scandal Sunday night.
Militias are also apprehending foreigners for "perceived or actual violations of Libyan law," and the State Department might not be able help because the militias may not be sanctioned or controlled by the government.
Two top foreign-policy advisors to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney laid out policies for dealing with Iran this week and neither matches what the former Massachusetts governor has said on the issue.
Former senior National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams, who has been rumored as a potential top official in a future Romney administration, wrote on the Weekly Standard's website Aug. 21 that now is the time for Congress to authorize the use of military force against Iran as a means of preventing Israel from striking Iran's nuclear facilities.
"Why would Israel, with so much less power than the United States, decide to take on a task at the far outer edge of its military capacities? Why not leave that task to the superpower, which would do a much better job? The answer is simple: Israelis do not believe the United States will perform the task-will ever use military force, even as a last resort, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons," Abrams wrote.
Abrams said that Israel does not trust President Barack Obama's repeated assurances, including at the AIPAC conference in March, that he will not allow Iran to get the bomb and that he is prepared to use military force. Abrams quotes Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence who said last week that many Israelis don't believe Obama.
"There is a certain feeling in Israel that perhaps the president's declaration at AIPAC is not sufficient, and that maybe much more binding and stronger steps need to be taken," Yadlin said.
Congress is unlikely to pass an authorization to use force in Iran before the election. There are only a handful of legislative days in September and before lawmakers left town for the August recess, the Senate wasn't even able to pass a highly touted bipartisan resolution stating the sense of the Senate that containment of a nuclear Iran is not acceptable.
On Wednesday, another senior Romney foreign-policy advisor, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, laid out a different policy prescription for Iran in the Washington Times. He agrees with Abrams that Obama's assurances about preventing a nuclear Iran are not credible, but suggests that Israel must be allowed to strike on its own if necessary.
"The hard reality, therefore, is that Israel must make its own military decision, preferably one based on physics, not politics. Israel most likely still has time if it wishes to act independently, but there is no guarantee how long," he wrote.
One line in particular caught the attention of Obama campaign national security advisory team spokeswoman Marie Harf: "Even if Mitt Romney wins, there is no guarantee U.S. policy could change quickly enough to stop Iran." She tweeted: "John Bolton, off msg?"
Bolton's line seems to contradict the line Romney used in primary debates, when he said, "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon."
Asked about the discrepancy by The Cable, the Romney campaign referred back to the candidate's speech in Jerusalem, in which he affirmed his opposition to the idea of containing a nuclear Iran and stressed that the threat of a nuclear Iran is urgent and is a top national security priority.
"It is sometimes said that those who are the most committed to stopping the Iranian regime from securing nuclear weapons are reckless and provocative and inviting war. The opposite is true. We are the true peacemakers. History teaches with force and clarity that when the world's most despotic regimes secure the world's most destructive weapons, peace often gives way to oppression, to violence, or to devastating war," Romney said.
"We must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option. We must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability. We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel's right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you."
The Obama campaign told The Cable that Romney hasn't put out a policy plan for Iran that is substantively different from what the current administration is doing now.
"Mitt Romney continues to engage in reckless rhetoric on Iran, while failing to outline any policy ideas to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon beyond what President Obama has already done - including implementing crippling sanctions, increasing diplomatic pressure, and putting a credible military option on the table," said campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher. "Gov. Romney owes it to the American people to say whether he thinks there's still time for diplomacy to work or if he thinks it's time to take military action against Iran - but he's been silent."
The Pakistani government must explain how Osama bin Laden was able to hide in Abbottabad for years and reveal who in Pakistan helped him, Pakistan's former Ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani said Wednesday.
"It's Pakistan's responsibility to the world to say who did it," Haqqani told an audience at the Center for the National Interest, formerly known as the Nixon Center. "It doesn't have to be the government, it doesn't have to be the military, but whoever it is, we have to come clean on that, because that is the only way we will assure the rest of the world that Pakistan's government and Pakistan's state has its hands clean on this whole thing."
Haqqani said that he has no information on how the late al Qaeda leader lived with a large number of family for five years in a military garrison town, but that there were clearly sympathizers in Pakistan that supported bin Laden and the government has failed to issue any report on who they were.
"There's no report on bin Laden yet. No one is saying it was the government ... but somebody helped him. Somebody bought the place for him, somebody paid for the electricity bills, somebody helped bring food there, and at least that should be identified and it hasn't been," he said. "Somebody knew. I mean, nobody lives anywhere without anybody knowing. Even Friday knew where Robinson Crusoe was. Somebody in Pakistan knew. Who that somebody is, it's Pakistan's responsibility to identify."
Haqqani speculated that bin Laden might have been helped by a private group, a set of individuals, people in Pakistan's jihadi groups, or people in Pakistan's Islamic political parties. He said the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is hampered by the lack of official answers.
"The bin Laden event was a very huge event from the point of view of American psyche and it hasn't registered in Pakistan sufficiently ... I tried very hard at that time in Islamabad to get people to realize that people in Washington really want answers," he said.
A forthcoming book by journalist Richard Miniter claims that a senior colonel in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate walked into the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad in Dec. 2010, five months before the bin Laden raid, and told U.S. officials about bin Laden's whereabouts. The book also reports that the bin Laden compound was "carved out" of the Kakul Military Academy and that senior Pakistani military officials may have been briefed on the raid in advance.
Haqqani said he has no idea what the ISI knew or did but he can be sure that the civilian leadership in Pakistan had no idea that the Abbottabad raid was coming on the night of May 1, 2011.
"We really, on the Pakistani side, were totally taken by surprise by what happened on May 1, 2011. That said, a full, proper investigation on the Pakistani side is needed to find out how Osama bin Laden lived in Pakistan and who supported him, within or outside the government," said Haqqani.
Haqqani returned to Washington earlier this year following three months of house arrest in Pakistan while the Pakistani Supreme Court investigated the "Memogate" scandal, in which Haqqani stood accused of being behind a secret memo passed from Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz to Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, calling on the United States to support an overthrow of the military and intelligence leadership in Pakistan.
A commission set up by the Supreme Court eventually determined that Haqqani was behind the memo, but Haqqani maintains that he was not and that the commission's ruling was politically motivated. He has not been indicted on any charges and is free to go back to Pakistan, he said, but fears for his safety if he were to travel there. He returns to Boston this fall to resume teaching at Boston University.
Haqqani's new book, Magnificent Delusions, is set to come out later this year. The book argues that, since 1947, Washington and Islamabad's tumultuous relationship has been based on the false assumption that if the two countries could simply engage enough, they could develop a close strategic relationship based on overlapping interests.
"I have reached the conclusion that 60 years is long enough for two countries to understand if they really do see things each other's way," he said. "The two countries should look for a non-alliance future that is not based on security assistance and aid."
Opinions of the two countries among their respective populations is at historical lows, Haqqani noted, and the relationship won't change for the better until the unhealthy dynamic of giving and then threatening to withdraw U.S. aid to Pakistan is ended, he argued.
"Pakistan ends up behaving like Syria while wanting to be treated like Israel," Haqqani said.
He called for an amicable divorce in the relationship.
"If in 65 years if you haven't been able to find sufficient common ground to live together and you've had three separations and four affirmations of marriage, then maybe the better way is to find friendship outside of the marital bond," he said.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Siding with the Brits in their escalating feud with Ecuador about the status of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the State Department declared today that the United States does not believe in the concept of ‘diplomatic asylum' as a matter of international law.
Ecuador dragged Britain into an emergency meeting of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States Friday at OAS headquarters in Washington, calling for a foreign ministers' meeting following the British threat to go into the Ecuadoran embassy in London and get Assange, who is wanted for questioning in connection with sexual assault charges in Sweden.
Ecuador formally granted Assange political asylum Thursday, but today the State Department said the United States doesn't agree that such a thing exists.
"The United States is not a party to the 1954 OAS Convention on Diplomatic Asylum and does not recognize the concept of diplomatic asylum as a matter of international law," the office of Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a Friday statement. "We believe this is a bilateral issue between Ecuador and the United Kingdom and that the OAS has no role to play in this matter."
That statement is a shift from the stance the State Department took yesterday, when Nuland said that Washington would stay out of the dispute and that the American position was that the Brits were making decisions based on British, not international law.
"This is an issue between the Ecuadorans, the Brits, the Swedes," Nuland said Thursday. "It is an issue among the countries involved and we're not planning to interject ourselves."
The United States can only formally grant asylum to political figures once they actually are on U.S. soil, as dictated by the Refugee Act of 1980. But the U.S. has a long record of protecting political targets inside U.S. embassy complexes, most recently with Chinese blind dissident Chen Guangcheng last December.
That might seem like a distinction without a difference to many. However, Chen never sought or was granted asylum; he simply asked to study in the United States and the Chinese government eventually assented.
In 1989, the U.S. granted "temporary refuge" to Feng Lizhi, a leader of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement, who fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and stayed there for 384 days before Chinese authorities allowed him to go to the United States, but officially only for "medical treatment."
Joseph Stalin's daughter Svetlana sought refuge in 1967 via the U.S. Embassy in India and was eventually granted U.S. citizenship.
The war of words between Britain and Ecuador escalated Thursday over the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but the State Department said the United States is staying out of it.
Ecuador formally granted Assange political asylum Thursday as the WikiLeaks founder continues to hole up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where he has been since June avoiding extradition to Sweden for questioning related to allegations of sexual assault. Earlier this week, the British government affirmed its right to go into the embassy and get Assange, provoking a harsh diplomatic response from the Ecuadoran government.
"The United Kingdom does not recognize the principle of diplomatic asylum," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters Thursday. "There is no ... threat here to storm the embassy. We are talking about an Act of Parliament in this country which stresses that it must be used in full conformity with international law."
Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said that he fears if Assange is sent to Sweden he could then be sent on to the United States, where he would not be able to receive a fair trial. Patino called Assange an enemy of the "corrupt" media and U.S. "imperialism."
In Washington, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Thursday that the U.S. government takes no position on the extradition of Assange to Sweden and that the United States is not involved in the issue at the diplomatic level.
"This is an issue between the Ecuadorans, the Brits, the Swedes," said Nuland. "It is an issue among the countries involved and we're not planning to interject ourselves."
Nor has the United States gotten involved on the issue of Assange's current location or where he might end up, Nuland said. She declined to say if the United States supported the British position that it does not recognize the principle of political asylum in the first place.
Reporters at the briefing pointed out that the U.S. has invoked the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in the past, which states, "The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enterthem, except with the consent of the head of the mission." But Nuland declined to get into that issue, saying only that the Brits were invoking British law in this case.
"Well, if you're asking me for a global legal answer to the question. I'll have to take it and consult 4,000 lawyers," Nuland said. "With regard to the decision that the Brits are making or the statement that they made, our understanding was that they were leaning on British law in the assertions that they made with regard to future plans, not on international law."
Pressed on whether or not the United States has been involved in the Assange extradition in any way, Nuland said not as far as she knows. She added that she doesn't think the Justice Department was planning on charging him with anything anyway.
"My information is that we have not involved ourselves in this," she said. "But with regard to the charge that the U.S. was intent on persecuting him, I reject that completely."
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
North Korean officials threatened to reconsider existing agreements with the United States in a recent meeting in Singapore, two sources familiar with the discussions told The Cable.
The North Korean warning comes as analysts speculate that Pyongyang may be preparing a fresh nuclear test, a development that could raise tensions in Asia and embarrass U.S. President Barack Obama in the middle of a closely fought re-election campaign.
Top U.S. experts held a "track two" meeting in the island nation in late July, during which the North Koreans hardened their negotiating position and rejected any return to the latest deal struck between the two sides, but nevertheless left the door open to further talks with the United States and the international community.
The meeting was the first of its kind since North Korea tried and failed to launch a rocket into space in April, which precipitated a U.S. withdrawal from the Feb. 29 bilateral agreement to give North Korea food aid in exchange for concessions on the country's nuclear and missile programs.
At the secret meetings in Singapore, the North Koreans told two U.S. experts they were no longer interested in resurrecting that arrangement and said they were reconsidering their previous agreements to eventually denuclearize as well.
On the North Korean side of the table were Han Song-ryol, North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations and Choe Son Hui, the deputy director-general of the North American affairs bureau in the DPRK foreign ministry. On the American side were six experts led by Joel Wit, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator, and including Corey Hinderstein, vice president of the international program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Some reports said that there was a also a July meeting in New York between Han and Clifford Hart, the U.S. special envoy to the defunct Six-Party Talks.
"The agenda [in Singapore] focused on a variety of issues. One important topic was the future of U.S.-North Korean relations," said one source familiar with the meeting. "The other topics were nuclear safety, nuclear security, cooperative ways of monitoring denuclearization, and the whole raft of issues people discuss at nuclear summits."
When the conversation was on the future of bilateral relations, the North Korean side made clear it was no longer interested in the Feb. 29 agreement, which included a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, a return of international inspectors, and 240,000 tons of food aid, both sources said.
The North Koreans now want the United States to make concessions up front.
"Their position has shifted. Whereas before, under the Leap Day deal, it was simultaneous actions, as with the September 2005 joint statement, simultaneous actions were one of the key aspects. There is now emphasis on unilateral action by the U.S. and then the North Koreans may respond," one source said.
The North Koreans told their American interlocutors they were thinking internally about whether or not to scuttle the September 2005 joint statement altogether. That statement committed North Korea to eventually getting rid of its nuclear weapons program.
An Aug. 9 article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists written by Frank Pabian and Sigfried Hecker speculated that North Korea may be only weeks away from completing the preparations necessary to conduct a third nuclear test using either a plutonium or highly-enriched uranium (HEU) device or both. At the Singapore meeting, the North Koreans didn't broach the topic.
"They didn't make any explicit statements about their nuclear program," one source said, "but I think it's very clear that their program is moving forward. That doesn't necessarily mean nuclear tests. It's quite likely their HEU program is also moving forward."
The source noted that as part of their formal presentation, the very first point the North Korean officials made was that their new leadership is not changing the late leader Kim Jong Il's line that North Korea has no eternal enemies or eternal friends.
"That's a very clear signal that they still want to make continuing efforts to improve relations with the U.S. and are indeed are interested in that. But they are toughening their position and that's in part because they are feeling pretty good about where they are," the source said.
The North Koreans believe they have weathered the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" -- waiting for Pyongyang to make the first move while strengthening ties with U.S. allies in Asia.
"The North Koreans feel pretty confident in their position. They are still keeping the door open to improving ties with the U.S. but the price is getting higher and it's becoming more difficult," the source said. "At some point somebody will be back to the table with them. They are getting ready for that with a much tougher negotiating position. They think they're sitting pretty."
Of course, North Korea still faces a food crisis, devastating floods, and an economic crisis. Pyongyang might seek to trade nuclear concessions in exchange for aid, as it has in the past. But as long as the country continues to get assistance from China, its motivation to make concessions is low.
"They probably can continue to progress economically while avoiding making concessions on the nuclear front with the support of China and that seems to be the option that they've chosen," the source observed.
The State Department inspector general's office released its scathing report on the leadership of former ambassador to Kenya Scott Gration Friday, saying that Gration ranked dead last among dozens of ambassadors reviewed in recent years.
Gration resigned suddenly June 29 after viewing the report, but he did not offer a written response to the report released today.
"The Ambassador has lost the respect and confidence of the staff to lead the mission," read the report. "Of more than 80 chiefs of mission inspected in recent cycles, the Ambassador ranked last for interpersonal relations, next to last on both managerial skill and attention to morale, and third from last in his overall scores from surveys of mission members. The inspectors found no reason to question these assessments; the Ambassador's leadership to date has been divisive and ineffective."
The assessment of Gration goes downhill from there.
"The Ambassador has damaged the cohesion of Embassy Nairobi's country team by underscoring differences between offices working directly with Kenya and those with regional responsibilities. Country team members, particularly those from other agencies, relied on the recently departed deputy chief of mission to maintain a sense of common purpose at Embassy Nairobi. Unless corrected there is a risk that the country team will become dysfunctional," the report stated.
Gration consumed his staff with what he called "mission essential tasks" that provided "almost no value" to the State Department or the rest of the U.S. government working on Kenya, the IG found. Gration made it clear he disagreed and would not implement U.S. government decisions, insisted on using his personal email for official business, and refused to even read the cables coming from Washington, the report said.
"Notwithstanding his talk about the importance of mission staff doing the right thing, the Ambassador by deed or word has encouraged it to do the opposite," the report said.
The IG reported that Gration refused to meet with most prominent Kenyans, journalists, and even his senior embassy staff, who would try unsuccessfully for months to get in touch with him.
Gration's big project was one he started called Let's Live, which set the goal of reducing Kenyan infant mortality by 50 percent in one year, but the program was never funded and confused everyone in Nairobi working on the Global Health Initiative (GHI) programs in Kenya, including the Kenyans.
"At the Ambassador's initiative, the embassy has spent considerable time and effort on Let's Live without advancing the GHI. At the same time, Let's Live has damaged mission morale and negatively affected relations with senior Kenyan health officials," the report said.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Gration disputed the report and said using his commercial e-mail was not a security issue. "I did rock the boat. I made changes in priorities, and changes can be very hard," he said.
Gration, a retired Air Force general, was one of the first senior military figures to openly support and actively campaign for President Barack Obama in 2007 and was embraced by the team that would eventually form the president's closest national security inner circle. Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough once described Gration as one of the top three national security advisors to Obama, along with former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak. He was rumored during the transition to be a candidate to lead NASA.
He took over as ambassador to Kenya in February 2011 following a controversial two-year stint as Obama's special envoy for Sudan.
UPDATE: Gration sent the following statement on the IG report to The Cable:
The State Department Office of the Inspector General's report on the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya released today contains an egregious number of categorically false statements.
Since I announced my resignation, I've been flooded with letters of support from members of all branches of government, Kenyan leaders and the international community. These letters are testaments to my effective leadership, superb job performance, unyielding loyalty to U.S. government decisions and relentless efforts to promote American ideals and best interests.
Most of all, I've been deeply disappointed by the State Department's decision not to give me the opportunity to refute the report's false statements.
While I seek to clear my name against the report's baseless allegations, I remain committed to improving human conditions and promoting American values wherever I can make a positive difference.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
The Treasury and State Departments announced Friday that the U.S. government is sanctioning Hezbollah for supporting the Syrian regime, even though the Lebanese militia is already sanctioned for being a terrorist group and the new announcement doesn't actually change those sanctions at all.
"This action highlights Hezbollah's activities within Syria as well as its integral role in the continued violence being carried out by the Assad regime against the Syrian population," Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen said on a Friday afternoon conference call.
He noted that Hezbollah is already sanctioned as a terrorist group, since 1995, for numerous terrorist acts including the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 Marines. Hezbollah has perpetrated attacks in South America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and various countries in the Middle East, and tried to carry out attacks in Azerbaijan, Egypt, Thailand, and Cyprus, Cohen said.
The Assad regime has given the group weapons, money, and safe haven for training camps, and now Hezbollah is repaying the favor by providing training, advice, and logistical support to the Syrian government, he said, especially in how to wage a counterinsurgency.
"Since the start of the unrest in Syria in early 2011, Hezbollah has directly trained Syrian government personnel inside Syria and has facilitated the training of Syrian forces by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qods Force," said Cohen. "Hezbollah has also played a substantial role in efforts to expel Syrian opposition forces from areas within Syria."
State Department's counterterrorism czar Amb. Daniel Benjamin said that Hezbollah is coordinating directly in Syria with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. He pointed to press reports that Hezbollah was behind recent terrorist attacks on Israelis in Thailand and Belgium, and accused the group of narcotics trafficking and international money laundering.
"Hezbollah believes that there have been sustained Israeli and Western campaigns against the group and its primary backers, Iran and Syria, over the past several years. And this perception is unlikely to change," he said. "Both [Hezbollah and Iran] remain determined to exact revenge against Israel and to respond forcefully to the Western-led pressure against Iran and Syria."
The Cable asked both officials if designating Hezbollah for sanctions, which freezes the group's U.S.-based assets and bars Americans from doing business with Hezbollah, has any added concrete effect if done twice. They said the added effect is in the court of public opinion.
"It will put the group in a more difficult situation, and, I think, will make them think long and hard before they continue this campaign in which the Syrian people are being brutalized. So we do see very concrete benefits coming from this designation," said Benjamin. "Whether they will be in the area of financial sanctions or not remains to be seen, but in terms of casting a bright light on what the group is doing, I think that's vitally important."
So the Treasury Department doesn't have to actually do anything to enforce the new designation it wasn't doing already, and Hezbollah doesn't feel any additional direct pain. Cohen said the Hezbollah's assets should already be frozen but there is additional impact in adding the new designation.
"The purpose of our designations, whether it's the Hezbollah action today or any of our other designations under our authorities, is not solely focused on the immediate financial impact, but as Ambassador Benjamin just expressed, to expose the activity of the party that is being designated for the conduct that has led to the designation," he said.
Benjamin said that the Obama administration hopes other countries will follow suit, not mentioning the European Union specifically, but he wouldn't say there is any indication other countries are planning any such announcement any time soon.
Cohen wouldn't comment on whether or not Hezbollah even has any assets in the United States in the first place.
"As noted before, to the extent that they are here, they should have already been frozen, and anyone who has Hezbollah assets in their possession is required to report those to OFAC. But beyond that, I can't comment," he said.
For those on Capitol Hill who are skeptical of the administration's sanctions and diplomacy-based approach toward pressuring the Assad regime to stop killing its own people, today's action seemed less than consequential.
"Today's announcement appears more about politics than policy, style more than substance," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. "This hollow designation may be pleasing to Obama strategists in Chicago, but it won't do a thing to help the people dying in the streets of Syria."
In a separate action today, the administration also sanctioned the Syrian state-run oil company Sytrol under the Iran Sanctions Act as amended by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act.
"These sanctions are because of transactions that Sytrol engaged in with Iran's energy sector, and I think the action we're taking today highlights the really serious concerns that the United States has about the close ties shared by the Iranian and Syrian regimes and the fact that we, the United States, are committed to using every tool available to prevent regional destabilization," a senior administration official said on a different Friday afternoon conference call.
The neoconservative wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment is up in arms about Mitt Romney's selection of realist Bob Zoellick to head his national security transition team, but the realists have been the Republicans who steered the ship of U.S. foreign policy the best, according to Zoellick's mentor, former Secretary of State James Baker.
"I know where I am; I think I know where Henry Kissinger and George Shultz are. I think we were all pretty darn successful secretaries of state," Baker said in a long interview Thursday with The Cable. "I also know something else: I know the American people are tired of paying the cost, in blood and treasure, of these wars that we get into that sometimes do not represent a direct national security threat to the United States."
Baker argued that the George H.W. Bush-led 1990-1991 Gulf War, which was prosecuted by an international coalition Baker himself played a key role in creating, was a more successful model than the wars that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that happen to have been urged and led by neoconservative officials in the George W. Bush administration.
"That was a textbook example of the way to go to war," Baker said of the Gulf War. "Look at the way [George H.W. Bush] ran that war. I mean, we not only did it, we said ‘Here's what we're going to do,' we got the rest of the world behind us, including Arab states, and we got somebody else to pay for it. Now tell me a better way, politically, diplomatically, and militarily, to fight a war."
Baker rejected, in detail, the four main criticisms neoconservatives both inside and outside the Romney campaign have made regarding Zoellick: that Zoellick is soft on China, insufficiently supportive of Israel, was weak on pressuring the Soviet Union toward the end of the Cold War, and that he didn't support the Gulf War.
Baker said the last charge was simply false. "He was never opposed to the Gulf War. In fact, he was one of my right-hand aides when we built that unprecedented international coalition to kick Iraq out of Kuwait," Baker said.
Regarding the end of the Cold War, Baker said Zoellick played a key role in the reunification of Germany and of Germany's subsequent admission into NATO.
"[Zoellick] wasn't the lead, but he was absolutely critical and instrumental in our getting German unification accomplished, and we did it over the objections of the Soviet Union," Baker said.
On China, Baker defended the George H.W. Bush administration's reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which has been widely criticized.
"The fact of the matter is that, when Tiananmen Square broke, we ended up sanctioning China in many, many ways," he said. "We didn't fire up the 101st Airborne, but we did put political and diplomatic and economic sanctions on China. But we kept the relationship going. Now, Bob Zoellick was a part of all that -- he wasn't the lead on it or anything, but he sure is not, as far as I can tell, soft on China."
Regarding Israel, Baker said that the first Bush administration admittedly had a rocky relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, though it had a better relationship with his successor Yitzhak Rabin. But good progress was made during that period, he said, even though the Bush administration often took stances on issues that the Israeli leaders didn't like, such as whether U.S. funds could be used to build settlements.
When Baker was secretary of state, the United States convinced Arab nations to sit face to face with the Israelis, got the United Nations to repeal the resolution that equated Zionism with racism, and facilitated the emigration of Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union, all by focusing on the U.S. interest in working with both sides toward peace, which has been a bipartisan and longstanding policy of many administrations over the years, he said.
Baker pointed to a recent New York Times column by Tom Friedman arguing that the most successful American leaders on the Middle East process were Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, and himself.
In any case, Baker said, Zoellick "wasn't involved extensively" in making policy toward Israel.
"He was not the lead guy. The lead guy there was Dennis Ross, and nobody ever accused Dennis Ross of being hard on Israel," Baker said.
Zoellick's outstanding qualifications for a leadership position in the Romney campaign or a future administration are his experience and competence, Baker said.
"The fact of the matter is that if the Romney campaign and the Romney administration employ somebody like Bob Zoellick, they're going to get somebody who's been there, who's done that, who understands how to make things work, and who understands how to get things done. And that's what we need, above all, in our leadership," he said.
The realist view practiced by Zoellick, Baker, and the elder Bush, of a pragmatic foreign policy that understands the limits of U.S. power and eschews costly and lengthy interventions in countries that aren't crucial to American interests, is even more relevant today, he argued.
For example, Baker doesn't agree with prominent neoconservatives that the United States should do more in Syria.
"Well, my view is that sooner or later, Assad is going to go. I don't think he can survive, and I think we ought to do everything we can -- politically, diplomatically, and economically -- to make that happen. I believe we are doing that. I think we ought to be very careful about the slippery slope of military intervention of any sort," he said. "The Syrian threat's not a threat to us."
Baker said that the United States can't allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, but argued that the military option should only be used as a last resort and that there is still time for diplomacy before military action would have to be considered.
"We ought to do everything we can, tighten these sanctions as tight as we can get them -- they're showing some indication of beginning to work. We ought to see if we can't get them to work better, keep doing that. We're not at a critical point yet," he said.
"Our biggest threat today isn't Syria, or even Iran, or Russia or China. Our biggest threat today is our own economy, and we cannot continue to be strong diplomatically, politically, and militarily and be weak economically," he added.
Baker also responded to Romney's claim in stump speeches that Baker had once claimed that Ronald Reagan told him to hold no national security meetings in his first 100 days of his presidency. In fact, Reagan had national security briefings every day and intermittent National Security Council meetings, Baker said.
"I think it was misunderstood a little bit. What I said was that we focused, with laser-like efficiency, on the economy, because we knew ... you see, we came in under similar circumstances that Obama came in, but he didn't focus on the economy the way we did," Baker said.
"By the beginning of the third year of Ronald Reagan's term, we were coming out really good, creating jobs, big economic growth, because we put in place pro-growth economic policy," he said. "Well, a part of the reason we were able to do that is that in fact we in the administration focused with laser-like effectiveness on our economic program. We weren't going to let anything get in the way of that, including conflict in Central America, which some people were suggesting we ought to deal with, and that sort of thing."
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Top State Department officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been working behind the scenes to assuage Indian anger following the attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin over the weekend by an Army veteran and alleged former white supremacist.
Indian government officials and Sikh leaders across India were outraged by the attack that left 6 dead, including 4 Indian nationals, at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee and called on the U.S. to do more to protect Sikhs living in the United Sates. Clinton called Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna from her stop in South Africa Monday after Krishna criticized the U.S. for failed policies and a growing trend of violent incidents against religious minorities.
"I have seen messages of condolence from President Obama and others. They've emphasized protection of all faiths. The U.S. government will have to take a comprehensive look at this kind of tendency which certainly is not going to bring credit to the United States of America,'' Krishna said.
Protests broke out in several Indian cities in response to the news of the attack, some calling for stricter U.S. gun laws. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal wrote to India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to urge the Indian government to press the Obama administration to do more to protect Sikhs living in the U.S.
"The government of India must get more actively and vigorously involved in getting the U.S. administration to address the issue in right earnest," wrote Badal.
"That this senseless act of violence should be targeted at a place of religious worship is particularly painful,'' Singh, a member of the Sikh community, said in a statement.
U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell met with Indian government and Sikh community leaders over the weekend to express U.S. government condolences and pledge a thorough investigation. She also visited a Sikh temple in New Delhi to pay her respects.
Back in Washington, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman spoke with India's ambassador to Washington Nirupama Rao to condemn the attacks and offer condolences.
"Our hearts go out to the victims, their families, and the Sikh community. This is a tragic incident, especially because it happened in a place of worship. Religious freedom and religious tolerance and fundamental pillars of American society," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said at Monday's press briefing.
Following three prominent defections this weekend, the State Department declared today that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is "crumbling," but can't say how, when, or what comes next.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Monday that the State Department is confident that reports are accurate that Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, a Sunni, has resigned his post only two months after being appointed and has fled to Jordan on his way to Qatar.
Combined with the defection of top Syrian intelligence official Colonel Yaraab Shara and the first Syrian cosmonaut, Major General Mohammed Ahmed Faris, who announced his defection from the Syrian army on YouTube on Sunday evening, all signs point to a regime collapse, Ventrell said.
"These defections ... indicate that the Syria regime is crumbling and losing its grip on power," Ventrell said. "We encourage others to join them in rejecting the horrific actions of the Assad regime and helping the Syrian people chart a new path for Syria, one that is inclusive, peaceful, democratic, and just."
Ventrell, who is filling in for regular spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who is traveling in Africa with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, didn't have any information on whether U.S. officials have been in contact with Hijab or any of the other defectors.
But a State Department official speaking on background said that it was the State Department's understanding that Hijab was not fired by Assad, as the Syrian government claimed, but rather that the Assad regime had "retroactively" fired him "to save face" after he escaped Damascus with his family.
"We don't have a crystal ball. We don't whether it's going to be days or week or how soon," the Assad regime will fall, Ventrell said, but he emphasized that the State Department was working hard to contribute to Syrian opposition-led planning for "the day after" the regime falls.
Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has completed his meetings in Cairo over the weekend with 250 opposition representatives to discuss that planning. And Clinton has added an Aug. 11 stop in Istanbul, where she will meet with Turkish leaders to coordinate next steps on Syria. Meetings with Syrian opposition leaders and civil society representatives in Turkey are possible but not yet finalized, a State Department official said.
Reporters at the briefing pressed Ventrell to say whether the administration still plans to adhere to the plan agreed upon by world leaders last month in Geneva, which calls for a transitional government established by "mutual consent" between the Assad regime and the opposition.
A new transitional authority to govern Syria after the Assad regime falls could include Assad regime members, both political and technocratic officials, but "those hardcore group of people, Assad and his cronies with blood on their hands, would not be part of that transition," Ventrell said. Beyond that, the transitional government should be formed by Syrians, he said.
The administration is not yet supporting the idea of "safe zones" inside Syria, as many in Congress are calling for, but Ventrell referred to Clinton's July 24 comments, when she said that safe havens are coming but declined to say whether the U.S. or the international community should have a role in establishing or defending them.
"We have to work closely with the opposition because more and more territory is being taken, and it will eventually result in a safe haven inside Syria, which will then provide a base for further actions by the opposition," Clinton said.
"And so the opposition has to be prepared. They have to start working on interim governing entities. They have to commit to protecting the rights of all Syrians -- every group of Syrians. They have to set up humanitarian response efforts that we can also support. They've got to safeguard the chemical and biological weapons that we know the Syrian regime has," she said.
"And there's a lot to be done, so we're working across many of these important pillars of a transition that is inevitable. It would be better if it happened sooner," she continued, "but we know we have some hard times ahead of us."
Pakistan watchers were scratching their heads Thursday night when the Senate failed to confirm President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next ambassador to Pakistan, Rick Olson. On Friday, The Cable confirmed that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) objected to the nomination, pushing off Olson's confirmation until at least September.
Two senior Senate aides close to the issue told The Cable that the nominations of both Olson and James Cunningham to be the next ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan, respectively, were at risk of not being included in the string of nominations confirmed by the Senate by unanimous consent late Thursday, just before senators adjourned for a five-week recess. The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, whose health is declining, intervened and made calls on behalf of Cunningham and Olson, but only Cunningham got confirmed.
Two GOP Senate aides said that some Senate Foreign Relations Committee members were upset that the Cunningham and Olson nominations were rushed through the process and they didn't have time to submit questions for the record and get answers. There was no SFRC business meeting on the nominations, and both were discharged from the committee and sent to the floor without the committee weighing in.
The concerns about Olson, who previously served as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, aren't personal, but committee members want more detail on the would-be envoy's proposed approach to the Haqqani network, the militant group that has been waging cross-border attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Olson promised to make the issue a priority at his July 31 confirmation hearing, but multiple senators want to use the opportunity to gauge if the administration plans to include the Haqqani network in any effort to negotiate an end to the Afghanistan war.
"Given the highly sensitive U.S.-Pakistan relationship, it is important to have a fully vetted ambassador. Both the White House and Chairman Kerry know this, and should have planned accordingly," one GOP senate aide said.
For Paul, his hold on the Olson nomination is part of his overall effort to pressure the Pakistani government to release Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to help positively identify Osama bin Laden. Afridi was sentenced in June to 33 years in jail for treason. Paul is not only holding up the confirmation of the U.S. ambassador, he is also threatening to force a vote to cut all U.S. aid to Pakistan over the issue, the aides said.
Paul's office did not respond to our request for comment, but The Cable caught up with the senator himself in the hallways of the Capitol Thursday. He said he had met with the State Department and with Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman, and told them that he will keep pressing the issue unless Afridi is released. Afridi's next hearing is Aug. 29.
Senate leadership is dead-set against letting Paul have a vote on his amendment, out of concern that senators won't want to publicly stand up in defense of sending more American taxpayer money to Pakistan. But Paul said he plans to use Senate Rule 14 to force a vote. It's not clear if this legislative tactic will work, but Paul is confident.
"We are still hopeful that Pakistan will relook at the evidence and decide that they don't want to hold him. If they do, we will probably not press for the vote. If they don't, I have 16 signatures to try to force a vote," Paul said. "It's not a guarantee I'll get a vote, but it's a guarantee I'll be a thorn in somebody's side."
It's doubtful that the Pakistanis will free Afridi to satisfy Paul, and senior senators lament the delay in Olson's confirmation.
"Democrats and Republicans always say that the key to Afghanistan is securing cooperation with Pakistan. That's reason enough to have a top-notch diplomat in place in Islamabad," Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable.
"This is a complicated relationship that demands constant attention. We've been working day and night with Pakistan to build a stable economy and strengthen our engagement with its people, and after such a tumultuous year, this is exactly the wrong time to leave such an important post vacant. I can't think of a good reason for doing so. We recognized the importance of this position and expedited it out of committee and I urge the Senate to move this nomination through as quickly as possible when we return from the recess."
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Olson is headed to Pakistan prior to his confirmation. In fact, he will not go to Pakistan until he is confirmed.
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The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that includes a provision reauthorizing the U.S. ban on imports from Burma by a unanimous vote.
The bill reauthorizes the ban on U.S. imports from Burma for three years, with a caveat whereby the president or his delegee, the secretary of state, could decide to wave that prohibition for one year.
Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats, who was in favor of the legislation, said on Tuesday during a speech in Washington that he expected the bill to pass and that it would provide an incentive to the Burmese government to continue with its democratic reforms.
"What we have said all long is that it's action for action," Hormats said about the process of easing sanctions on Burma, which began when President Barack Obama lifted the ban on investing in the country.
"I would find it very surprising if Aung San Suu Kyi and the other reformers thought this was a good idea and Congress got much support for repealing [the lifting of sanctions]," said Hormats.
Senate leaders such as John McCain (R-AZ) are concerned that the state-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which controls all of Burma's oil and gas assets, is notoriously opaque and is known to funnel money to a select few people. In order to increase transparency and reduce corruption, Hormats noted that Burma has agreed to join the Extraction Industries Transparency Initiative, which monitors industry practices and revenue flow. Suu Kyi has frequently cautioned the United States against cooperating with MOGE.
If the Burmese government wants more sanctions lifted, it will have to resolve issues related to the treatment of cultural minorities and release more political prisoners, said Hormats.
"They've released 500," Hormats said. "But there are more."
The undersecretary, who returned from a trip to Burma just over a week ago, emphasized that he saw much cause for optimism about the country's democratic transition.
"The members of the junta who previously ran Burma in a very authoritarian way are now for the most part the vanguard of the reform effort," he explained. "This time, the old guard is the new guard."
Still, there are no guarantees. Escalating tensions and recent violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Burma's Rakhine state has displaced about 80,000 people and killed 78.
"As the president and secretary have said, this is still fragile -- there's no guarantee it's going to continue, but ... we got quite a good feeling that they are committed to doing this," Hormats said about Burma's transition process.
TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/GettyImages
House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) plans to introduce legislation Friday that bans foreign government officials responsible for violating the due-process rights of imprisoned U.S. citizens abroad from traveling in the United States.
Smith announced the move during a subcommittee hearing Wednesday on Jacob Ostreicher, a Brooklyn native who has been held in Bolivia for alleged money laundering since June 2011.
"The United States cannot stand by and simply ‘monitor' the case when our citizens are being held hostage to international human rights standards," said Smith, who visited Ostreicher in June and described him as "extremely frail and weak."
Ostreicher, an entrepreneur, went to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in December 2010 to take over the management of a rice business he co-owns from a local manager after investors suspected she was embezzling money from the venture.
The manager had disappeared by the time Ostreicher arrived, but before leaving she had purchased land from alleged Brazilian drug kingpin Maximilliano Dorado, who briefly lived in Bolivia.
Bolivian authorities, upon realizing that Ostreicher's company was operating on his land, arrested the businessman on June 3, 2011. Since then, 22 hearings have been scheduled for Ostreicher's case, but each has been postponed due to the successful maneuvering of Bolivian government prosecutors, including demanding the recusal of judges. Ostreicher is being held in the notoriously corrupt Palmasola prison, where he has been denied access to a doctor. He has been on a hunger strike since April 13.
Smith lambasted the State Department, which declined to testify at the hearing, for failing to effectively take up Ostreicher's case.
"Although our own State Department officials are finally acknowledging that Mr. Ostreicher's due process rights are being violated, they continue to seem hesitant and uncertain about what action to take on his behalf," he said.
Former FBI special agent Steve Moore, who has also visited Ostreicher in prison, said in heated comments during the hearing that Smith's proposed legislation addresses a vast government blindspot.
"There are brave people in State, but there are cowards in State too," he said. "If Jacob Ostreicher dies in Palmasola prison, both the Bolivian government and the United States Department of State will have the same blood on their hands."
The State Department responded Wednesday that it continues to work hard on the issue, as U.S. officials have been in "frequent contact" with Bolivian officials to advocate for due process under Bolivian law.
"Mr. Ostreicher's guilt or innocence will be decided by the Bolivian judicial system," a State Department spokesman said.
"However, the Bolivian government should permit the judicial system to function properly and allow Mr. Ostreicher's motion be heard on its merits," spokesman Patrick Ventrell continued. "The Bolivian government's actions are deeply regrettable, and are resulting in unacceptable delays. We urge the Bolivian government to act swiftly to correct this situation by holding the bail hearing immediately and advancing the judicial process without delay."
Smith, on the other hand, says he is not convinced that Bolivian officials intend to take any action.
"While in Bolivia, I met with Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Juan Carlos Alurralde, Minister of Government Carlos Romero Bonifaz, and Minister of Justice Cecilia Ayllón Quinteros to advocate for Mr. Ostreicher's release," he said. "Each of them have made commitments with respect to this case but have not followed through."
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Yimmy Montano, one of Ostreicher's Bolivian attorneys, believes his client is "being used by Bolivia to get back at the U.S. after a Miami court last year sentenced Gen. Rene Sanabria, Bolivia's top-ranking antidrug official, to 14 years in jail for trying to smuggle cocaine into the U.S."
Jerjes Justiniano, Ostreicher's second attorney, says there is no logical reason for his client's treatment.
"I do not understand how an American citizen can be treated this way, having invested in Bolivia and given jobs to indigenous Bolivians, reaching higher salaries than the government itself pays to the police," Justiniano said at Wednesday's hearing. "This approach demonstrates a clear interference by the executive on the judiciary."
Ostreicher's wife had harsh words for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which she says told her that he husband's situation is a symptom of a larger problem.
"The U.S. Embassy reported that it is the opinion of the UNCHR office in Bolivia that Jacob is not being persecuted or targeted by the government, but rather he is yet another victim of a brutally slow, inefficient, underfunded, and corrupt judicial system," the wife, Miriam Ungar, told the audience at the hearing. "As our Bolivian attorney will attest, the totality of what Jacob has experienced is not common."
Bolivia has had tense relations with the United States under the administration of President Evo Morales. In 2008, Morales accused U.S. antidrug officials of interfering in Bolivian politics and expelled them from the country.
Several individuals connected to the Morales administration have been convicted for cooperating with cartels in Bolivian and U.S. courts, the Eurasia Review reported in July. Morales himself has headed Bolivia's coca growers union since 1996. He was reelected chairman in July.
The Obama administration very publicly signaled a shift in its approach to dealing with the Syria crisis after negotiations broke down at the United Nations in mid-July.
But the actual details of that shift are still being debated internally and the administration's rhetoric has gotten out ahead of its policy, according to officials, experts, and lawmakers.
Those details are being discussed among a select group of top officials in a closed process managed by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, multiple sources told The Cable. Within that group, some officials are arguing for more direct aid to the internal Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army, that would help them better fight the Syrian military.
Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is pushing for such stepped-up measures and his team at the State Department is maintaining close contact with internal opposition groups, multiple administration sources said, including in meetings with opposition leaders this week in Cairo.
Other top officials at State, including Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Senior Advisor Fred Hof, are focusing more on developing diplomatic strategies with the external opposition and regional players such as Turkey.
At the Pentagon, the Syria and Israel teams have been working overtime to plan against contingencies and tackle the challenge of tracking Assad's chemical weapons and potentially responding to an instance of their use. The Washington Examiner reported July 21 that the Pentagon has set up a "Crisis Asset Team" to prepare for the regime's collapse and officials told The Cable that the Joint Chiefs of Staff is preparing worst-case scenario planning.
All this activity is taking place within guidelines handed down from the White House regarding the limits of what U.S. agencies can do inside Syria.
Two administration sources confirmed that the president has issued a finding allowing non-lethal assistance to non-violent groups inside Syria, which opens the door to more communications and intelligence help for the local councils, but closes the door on the idea of providing the Free Syrian Army with direct arms, military training, or other deadly assistance. It also closes the door on the idea of providing safe havens inside Syria using U.S. assets.
The White House wants to try to limit U.S. involvement in the crisis before the election, these administration sources said, in what one official said amounts to a "political lid," and the agencies are trying to come up with strategies to increase pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad within those boundaries.
The CIA, for instance, is reportedly aiding in the flow of arms from Gulf countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia by helping to vet arms recipients, as allowed by the non-lethal finding. The Washington Post's David Ignatius also reported that the finding allows the CIA to help the rebels with "command and control."
But some inside the administration are pushing for more.
"We're helping the rebels just enough to survive and maintain a level of momentum but not enough for them to combat the regime writ large," one U.S. official told The Cable.
The end of diplomacy
On July 19, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice declared that the Security Council "utterly failed" and that the United States would begin to work "with a diverse range of partners outside the Security Council" to pressure the Assad regime and increase aid to the Syria people. A front-page story July 22 in the New York Times subsequently reported that the administration had decided to abandon its quest for a new Security Council resolution instead boosting its direct aid to the internal Syrian opposition and focusing on strategies to "forcibly bring down" the Assad regime.
The Times reported that the White House was holding daily, high-level meetings focused on how to "manage a Syrian government collapse," but administration officials have been reticent to describe exactly how they intend to bring about Assad's downfall.
When pressed on the issue on July 24, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would not say if the United States would start providing the Syrian rebels increased assistance such as battlefield intelligence or logistical support.
"We are certainly providing communications that we know is going to people within Syria so that they can be better organized to protect themselves against the continuing assault of their own government," she said.
On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell also declined to specify any new initiatives to aid the internal Syria opposition when pressed repeatedly to identify the elements of the administration's new approach.
"We said from the day of that U.N. vote onward, we would accelerate every other part of our strategy and continue to work to get [Assad] to step aside so that this violence can stop. So all elements of that -- as I mentioned, these four tracks that include the accountability track, the support to the opposition, the humanitarian track, all of these have continued apace," he said.
"The next big leap"
The administration's shift in approach is more of a quantitative increase in the types of aid the U.S. was already providing, rather than a qualitative change that would see new categories of U.S. assistance inside Syria, analysts said.
"Thus far it's a creeping policy. It's now getting closer to giving lethal assistance to the internal opposition but still short of that. That would be the next big leap," said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Tabler warned that the administration's caution risks alienating the rebels.
"A non-lethal finding means that you can find out what's going on with these groups and help them but you can't do anything to actively help them overthrow the regime," he said. "But it's the guys with the guns who are going to control things on the ground, so you need to affect those groups, and that's hard to do that if you're not helping them and if they are angry that we didn't help them in their hour of need."
There are some signs that the administration is taking steps to aid the rebels indirectly. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control has issued a license for the Syrian Support Group, a Washington-based opposition group, to send money to the internal Syrian opposition
Rob Malley, Middle East director at the International Crisis Group, cautioned that there is still no appetite at the top levels of the administration for crossing the line into lethal assistance, even though the administration is happy to let others arms the rebels.
"It would be a greater sense of responsibility if U.S. weapons were in the wrong hands," he said. "It may be a distinction without a difference, but one that they are holding on to."
What the Syrian rebels really want are anti-aircraft weapons like Stinger missiles, but those are exactly the weapons the administration doesn't want to provide, said Malley. NBC's Richard Engel reported Tuesday that rebels in Aleppo had acquired a small shipment of MANPADS from Turkey.
The lack of direct U.S. support is creating a perception among the armed rebels that the United States is not on their side, Malley said.
“It’s certainly a perception among the Syrian people and the opposition that the U.S. and the West are content too see a weakened Syria without the regime being overthrown. The perception is almost iraguably false, yet the feeling is growing inside Syria that that’s an outcome that the west can live with,” he said. “For some in the Arab world Syria will be another argument in the case that American hasn’t done enough.”
That issue is at the heart of the argument made by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who said in a statement July 27 that the U.S. should be providing weapons, intelligence, and training to the Free Syria Army.
"Years from now, the Syrian people will remember that -- in their hour of desperation, when they looked to the world for help -- the United States stood idly by as brave Syrians struggled and died for their freedom in a grossly unfair fight," the senators wrote.
"If we continue on this path of inaction, a mass atrocity will surely unfold in Aleppo, or elsewhere in Syria. We have the power to prevent this needless death and advance our strategic interests in the Middle East at the same time. If we do not, it will be a shameful failure of leadership that will haunt us for a long time to come."
Mitt Romney's foreign trip showed that he can't handle sensitive diplomatic situations, can't even handle relationships with friendly countries, and therefore is failing the commander-in-chief test, according to Obama campaign representatives Robert Gibbs and Colin Kahl.
"He offended our closest ally and triggered a troubling reaction in the most sensitive region in the world. He certainly didn't prove to anyone that he passed the commander in chief test," said Gibbs, the former White House press secretary, on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
Gibbs said the Romney campaign set extremely low expectations for the trip -- and then didn't even meet those expectations. The former Massachusetts governor did not visit any warzones or meet with any U.S. troops, Gibbs observed, as then Senator Barack Obama did when campaigning in 2008.
"Many were surprised that Mitt Romney did not take the opportunity to meet with any members of our armed forces on this trip," said Gibbs.
Gibbs also noted that Romney only took three questions from the reporters traveling with him, sparking frustration between the Romney campaign and the press corps that boiled over with profane comments from one of Romney's aides to reporters in Poland. Obama took 25 questions on his campaign trip abroad, Gibbs said.
"He repeatedly took a pass on explaining his views on foreign policy to the American people," Gibbs said. "Romney's auditioning to be the leader of the free world and it's clear he is unable to represent America on the world stage."
Kahl, who served in the Obama administration for three years as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said that Romney's suggestion that London was not ready to host the Olympics was an unforced error.
"The trip was supposed to be an easy one for Governor Romney, but he couldn't even handle the low bar that his campaign set for him," said Kahl. "If Romney can't handle the special relationship with Great Britain on the eve of the Olympic Games, how can he handle our enemies?"
Kahl said that Romney's trip was devoid of specific policy proposals and that Romney has repeatedly criticized Obama's foreign policy without spelling out exactly what he would do differently.
"The world got to see what it would be like if Mitt Romney was in charge of American foreign policy and it's not a sight they will forget any time soon," said Kahl. "This trip casts serious doubt as to whether Governor Romney has the ability to handle the job."
Gibbs and Kahl also criticized Romney for intimating that culture had something to do with the disparity of wealth between in Israel and the Palestinian territories, comments described as racist by several Palestinian leaders.
"You have to choose your words very, very carefully and Governor Romney just didn't do that," said Kahl. "
"It's up to Governor Romney to explain why those comments would be helpful to resolving the conflict in the Middle East."
Kahl also defended the Obama administration's reluctance to recognize Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there, as Romney promised to do when he was in the Jewish state.
Kahl said that the current policy that the status of Jerusalem is an issue to be negotiated between the two parties represents bipartisan consensus going back decades.
"[Romney] disagreed with past democratic administrations like Bill Clinton's and past Republican administrations like Ronald Reagan's," Kahl said.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a Romney surrogate and rumored candidate to be Romney's running mate, defended the former governor's comments on culture and wealth in a brief interview Tuesday with The Cable.
"I think that certainly you look at the success of some countries and you wonder why are some nations that are right next door to other nations and more successful. I think America has benefited from being a melting pot of cultures," Rubio said. "There's no way you look at Israel and not marvel at what they have accomplished -- their commitment to democracy, their commitment to free enterprise, their commitment to upward mobility -- and I think you find a lot of that in their culture, absolutely."
The Romney campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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As the crisis in Syria deepens, top senators in both parties are unable to explain presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney's policy on dealing with the country's deepening civil war.
Romney, who leaves Tuesday evening on a three-nation foreign trip, barely mentioned Syria in his foreign-policy speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Reno, and then only as a criticism of President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Russia.
"I don't know what it is," said Senate Armed Services Committee member John Cornyn (R-TX) when asked to comment on Romney's Syria policy. After The Cable explained it to him, Cornyn said he needed more time to study the issue. Other top senators were similarly befuddled.
On his campaign website, Romney criticizes Obama for reaching out to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the past but stops short of calling for any direct action to force Assad from power such as directly arming the opposition, as his surrogates like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) are demanding, or establishing "safe zones" for the Syrian opposition, as many of his campaign's foreign policy advisors are calling for.
"Mitt Romney believes the United States should pursue a strategy of isolating and pressuring the Assad regime to increase the likelihood of a peaceful transition to a legitimate government. We should redouble our push for the U.N. Security Council to live up to its responsibilities and impose sanctions that cut off funding sources that serve to maintain the regime's grip on power," the campaign website reads.
But the Obama administration is already pursuing a more aggressive strategy than that, announcing this week that it is abandoning the diplomacy track at the U.N. and ramping up various levels of support to the Syrian opposition. CIA teams are also reportedly vetting rebels fighters and aiding in their efforts to get weapons from countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Administration officials say that increased communications and intelligence assistance is also on the way.
Romney has said repeatedly that the United States should "work with partners" to arm the Syrian opposition but has stopped short of calling for Washington to give the rebels direct, lethal aid. On July 19, after the U.N. Security Council again failed to impose punitive measures on the Assad regime following Russian and Chinese vetoes, Romney again criticized the administration's policy without saying what he would do differently.
"Russia's veto again shows the hollowness of President Obama's failed ‘reset' policy with Russia and his lack of leadership on Syria," Romney said. "While Russia and Iran have rushed to support Bashar al-Assad and thousands have been slaughtered, President Obama has abdicated leadership and subcontracted U.S. policy to Kofi Annan and the United Nations. Under this President, American influence and respect for our position around the world is at a low ebb."
On Monday, Romney told CNBC, "I think from the very beginning we misread the setting in Syria... America should've come out very aggressively from the very beginning and said Assad must go. ... The world looks for American leadership and American strength."
On Capitol Hill, senior Republicans and Democrats alike were at pains to describe Romney's policy on Syria, much less say whether they supported it or not.
"I think we need to have a robust discussion about that," Cornyn said. "There's also the concern that Syria is much more difficult than Libya was, for example. So I think the discussions need to continue about what the appropriate response is. I'm interested in learning from others what their response is."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who admitted last week that he didn't know what Romney's Afghanistan policy was, couldn't name any specifics of Romney's Syria policy Tuesday and instead launched into a monologue about America's role in the world.
"Syria is a really complicated problem in a really complicated part of the world and anybody who says you can have a Syria policy separate and apart from the rest of your foreign policy doesn't know what foreign policy is made of," Kyl told The Cable. "I know that Governor Romney sees the complexities of the world and appreciates the need to have a strong America that has the flexibility to act in complicated and difficult and very troublesome situations like Syria."
Kyl declined to say whether he supported arming the Syrian opposition or establishing safe zones inside Syria, or whether he believed that Romney was supporting either option.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said he supported the administration's efforts to facilitate the movement of arms to the Syrian opposition and he believes the United States should work with Turkey and NATO to establish safe zones for Syrian civilians.
But Levin could not say what Romney's Syria policy was or whether it was substantively different from what the administration is doing now.
"I don't know what his position is and his positions change so frequently, it's hard to keep track," Levin said. "That doesn't mean that he doesn't have one, or that he doesn't have two or three for that matter."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable he has very specific criticisms of the Obama administration's Syria policy and very specific requests, namely that the administration use American military power to protect Syrian civilians and directly arm the opposition to help topple Assad.
"I'm pained every day that goes by and more and more Syrians get killed. We may be doing something through the CIA, but not a lot. Now the Syrians are using fighter plans and threatening to use gas," said Lieberman. "What I'd like to see is the Obama administration lead the coalition of the willing to go after the Assad regime directly, and I think that would end this pretty quickly."
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For the last six months, 40 senior representatives of various Syrian opposition groups have been meeting quietly in Germany under the tutelage of the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) to plan for how to set up a post-Assad Syrian government.
The project, which has not directly involved U.S. government officials but was partially funded by the State Department, is gaining increased relevance this month as the violence in Syria spirals out of control and hopes for a peaceful transition of power fade away. The leader of the project, USIP's Steven Heydemann, an academic expert on Syria, has briefed administration officials on the plan, as well as foreign officials, including on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul last month.
The project is called "The day after: Supporting a democratic transition in Syria." Heydemann spoke about the project in depth for the first time in an interview with The Cable. He described USIP's efforts as "working in a support role with a large group of opposition groups to define a transition process for a post-Assad Syria."
The opposition leaders involved in the USIP project have been meeting since January and providing updates on their work to the Arab League, the Friends of Syria group, the team of U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, and the opposition Syrian National Council.
The focus of the group's effort is to develop concrete plans for the immediate aftermath of a regime collapse, to mitigate the risks of bureaucratic, security, and economic chaos. The project has also identified a few things can be done in advance to prepare for a post-Assad Syria.
"We organized this project along systematic lines, including security-sector reform," Heydemann said. "We have provided technical support for Syrian opposition participants in our project, and the Syrians have identified priorities for things that need to be implemented now."
He emphasized that USIP's involvement is primarily in a facilitation and coordination role. "The Syrians are very much in the lead on this," he said.
USIP intends to release a report on the project in the coming weeks that will serve as a transition strategy document to be used by the next government. The next phase is to stand up a transition support network "to begin to implement these recommendations about stuff that needs to happen now," Heydemann said.
In addition to security-sector reform, the group has come up with plans to reform the justice sector and a framework for the role of the armed opposition in a post-Assad Syria. The idea is to preserve those parts of the Syrian state that can be carried over while preparing to reform the parts that can't. For example, large parts of the Syrian legal system could be preserved.
The group has come up with a few innovative proposals to make the post-Assad transition less chaotic. One example Heydemann cited was the idea of mobile judicial review squads, which could be deployed to do rapid review and release of detainees held by the regime after it falls.
The project has also tried to identify regime personnel who might be able to play an effective role in the immediate phase after Assad falls.
"There's a very clear understanding of the Syrians in this project that a transition is not sweeping away of the entire political and judicial framework of Syria," Heydemann said. "We have learned an enormous amount about the participants so that we can actually begin a very crude vetting process."
The USIP-led project has been careful to avoid working to push the Assad regime from power.
"We have very purposely stayed away from contributing to the direct overthrow of the Assad regime," Heydemann said. "Our project is called ‘the day after.' There are other groups working on the day before."
The project has been funded by the State Department, but also has received funding from the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as Dutch and Norwegian NGOs. USIP partnered with the German Institute of International and Security Affairs, which is why all of the meetings have been held in Berlin.
The absence of Obama administration officials at these meetings, even as observers, was deliberate.
"This is a situation where too visible a U.S. role would have been deeply counterproductive. It would have given the Assad regime and elements of the opposition an excuse to delegitimize the process," Heydemann said.
He also said that none of the groups that fall beyond the mainstream of the opposition have any connection to the project, although the participants assume that Islamist politics will be a significant part of any future Syrian political order.
The idea is not to predict if, how, or when the Assad regime might fall, but rather to do as much as possible, as quietly as possible, to get ready for any contingency.
"Regime collapse offers one set of challenges; a negotiated transition offers another. Even if we are not certain a transition will occur, it would be profoundly irresponsible not to prepare for a transition," Heydemann said. "We are providing the opposition with an opportunity for the opposition itself to demonstrate its ability to undertake this work, which is actually quite significant."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.