The Obama administration decided Tuesday to allow Americans to send hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to Iran to help with earthquake relief in a rare relief of tight financial sanctions imposed on the country in response to its controversial nuclear program.
The Treasury Department issued a 45-day general license to allow officially registered NGOs to send up to $300,000 to Iran for humanitarian relief and reconstruction activities related to two Aug. 11 earthquakes that struck northern Iran and killed more than 250 people. Food and medicine aid is already exempted from sanctions against Iran. The George W. Bush administration took a similar action in 2003.
Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough explained on the White House blog that the Iranian government had refused to accept offers of official help for earthquake victims from the U.S. government, so the administration decided this was the best way to facilitate aid to the disaster area.
"In a disappointing decision, the government of Iran has chosen not to accept our offer of humanitarian assistance," he wrote. "This step allows the American people to support organizations providing humanitarian relief activities, including the distribution of emergency medical and shelter supplies, as well as those pursuing broader efforts to rebuild affected areas."
McDonough emphasized that the move was a temporary one and does not alter the administration's approach to sanctioning Iran writ large.
"We remain committed to rigorously implementing the measures and sanctions in place to increase the pressure on the Iranian regime, and to continue increasing the costs of Iran's non-compliance with its international obligations related to its nuclear program," he said.
Iran watchers have noted the delay in issuing the license, which came 10 days after the earthquake. When the Bush administration took a similar action, it did so just 4 days after the 2003 Bam disaster. Sources close to the administration told The Cable that there was significant debate about whether or not to issue the license.
State Department officials argued in favor of granting the license, while the White House resisted the move, worried about how even a temporary and limited relief of sanctions against Iran would play in the media so close to the presidential election. Eventually, with the support of top State Department officials, the White House was persuaded to agree to the move, these sources said.
The National Iranian American Council, a group representing Iranian-Americans, was also heavily involved in pushing for the issuance of the license. NIAC founder and president Trita Parsi told The Cable that his organization mobilized parts of the Iranian-American community, which sent more than 3,000 letters to the White House asking officials to allow more earthquake relief.
"Last time Bush did it, the U.S. won a tremendous amount of goodwill. And every time humanity trumps politics, the entity that takes the initiative wins a lot of soft power and political capital," Parsi said.
The obstacles facing NGOs who want to send cash to Iran are daunting, Parsi cautioned. He said that NIAC contacted 15 banks about wiring the money into Iran and 14 of them resisted the idea because working with Iranian banks is too risky, even when dealing with transactions that are exempted by sanctions.
"From their perspective, it's not worth the risk," he said. "We hope the banks will take note of this and start doing things that are permissible, because otherwise this general license may have no effect at all."
There is also some concern, including on Capitol Hill, as to whether the money sent to Iran might somehow find its way into the wrong hands. "While all Americans support the Iranian people in this time of distress, we need to make sure assistance sent to Iran is not diverted or misused by the Iranian government," a senior Senate aide said. "When you allow cash transfers rather than monetizing aid, that's a recipe for disaster."
Parsi said the best way to prevent the money from getting into Iranian government hands is to work through respected NGOs that are based in the United States and have a presence in Iran.
There are some checks on the aid, Treasury officials say.
"The license specifically forbids any dealings with entities on the OFAC SDN list such as the IRGC," Treasury Department spokesman John Sullivan told The Cable, referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. "There is also a mandated report to the Treasury and State Departments so we can make sure the money does not end up in the wrong hands."
If the international community gave the Syrian rebels arms, communications equipment, and intelligence, that would help speed President Bashar al-Assad's removal from power, the top U.S. military official in Europe said Thursday.
Navy Admiral James Stavridis, Commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, told the Senate Armed Services that NATO is not doing any "detailed planning" for ways to aid the Syrian opposition or protect Syrian civilians. But under intense questioning from the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Stavridis admitted he believed that giving material aid to the rebels would help them get better organized and push forward the process of getting the Assad to step down.
"Yesterday the secretary-general of NATO, Mr. Rasmussen, told The Cable, quote, ‘We haven't had any discussions about a NATO role in Syria and I don't envision such a role for the alliance,'" McCain said, referring directly to our Feb. 29 exclusive interview with Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"Is it true that NATO is doing no contingency planning of any kind with respect to Syria, including for the provision of humanitarian and medical assistance?" McCain asked Stavridis.
"We're not doing any detailed contingency planning at this point, senator, and there's a reason for that. Within the NATO command structure, there has to be an authorization from the North Atlantic Council before we can conduct detailed planning," Stavridis said. The North Atlantic Council is the body charged with making NATO policy decisions.
After getting Stavridis to confirm he believes the Syrian crisis is now an armed conflict between government and opposition forces, McCain then asked Stavridis if the provision of arms, communication equipment, and tactical intelligence would help the Syrian opposition to better organize itself and push Assad from power.
"I would think it would. Yes, sir," Stavridis replied.
McCain contrasted NATO's reluctance to intervene in Syria with previous NATO missions to halt massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) seconded that comparison at the hearing.
"This does remind me of experiences we had in Bosnia and Kosovo in the '90s," Lieberman said. "It actually took quite a while for us to build the political will, both here and in Europe, to get involved there. And while we were doing that, a lot of people got killed, and the same is happening in Syria now. I hope it doesn't take us so long."
Just down the hall from the SASC hearing, two top State Department officials were giving an entirely different take on the efficacy of arming the rebels. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration just doesn't think that arming the Syria rebels is a good idea.
"We've been very hesitant about pouring fuel onto a conflagration that Assad himself has set," Feltman testified Thursday. "So we're very cautious about this whole area of questioning and that's why we have worked with this international consensus on political tracks, on economic tracks, on diplomatic tracks, in order to get to the tipping point we were talking about earlier."
As Ben Smith in Politico reported Thursday, the Syria issue has divided Congress on traditional party and ideological lines -- lines that were muddled during the debate over intervention in Libya because of internal Republican disagreement. Most GOP senators and leading congressmen, along with all the GOP presidential candidates, are urging the Obama administration to begin directly aiding the Syrian rebels now.
Leading congressional Democrats, to the extent they have commented on the issue, have been more reluctant to get more involved in the Syria crisis. House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told reporters Thursday, "If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try. Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
"It is critical that we all proceed with extreme caution and with our eyes wide open," SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said at the Thursday hearing. "There are serious questions to be answered about the Free Syrian Army, but it is not too soon to think about how the international community could shape its thinking or encourage restraint."
The debate in Congress over aiding the Syrian rebels will ramp up next week, with a March 6 SASC hearing with Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis and a March 7 SASC hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The State Department is further scaling down the staff at the U.S. embassy in Damascus, citing increased violence and the inability of U.S. diplomats to effectively do their jobs there.
"Due to security concerns in Syria, in October 2011, the embassy was designated an unaccompanied post with restricted staffing. The Department has decided to further reduce the number of employees present in Damascus, and has ordered a number of employees to depart Syria as soon as possible," stated a Jan. 11 travel warning. "U.S. citizens should avoid all travel to Syria."
Airline services into and out of Syria are also cutting operations and U.S. citizens should leave now if they can, the travel warning stated. The consular section at the U.S. embassy in Damascus is no longer going to be open to the public, so American citizens will now have to make an appointment. Moreover, the embassy is warning Americans that if they get in trouble in Syria, they might be on their own.
"Our ability to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency is extremely limited and may be further constrained by the fluid security situation," the warning said. "Syrian efforts to attribute the current civil unrest to external influences have led to an increase in anti-foreigner sentiment. Detained U.S. citizens may find themselves subject to allegations of incitement or espionage. Contrary to the terms of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, of which Syria is a signatory, Syrian authorities generally do not notify the U.S. Embassy of the arrest of a U.S. citizen until days or weeks after the arrest. Moreover, in the past, security officials have not responded to U.S. Embassy requests for consular access, especially in cases of persons detained for ‘security' reasons. There have been numerous credible reports of torture in Syrian prisons."
One embassy official who won't be leaving, however, is Ambassador Robert Ford, who continues to engage Syrians both in person and on the U.S. embassy's Facebook page. In his Jan. 5 post, Ford acknowledged that terrorists may be attacking the Syrian regime but said that the regime was broadly responsible for the violence.
"Indeed there are terrorists attacking people in Syria. I'm the American ambassador and I just acknowledged it; in fact we've acknowledged and condemned violence all along," wrote Ford. "We strongly condemned the December 23 suicide car bomb attacks. But the question is what started all this violence and how to stop it? Can the Syrian government oppress a large part of the population that demands dignity and respect of basic human rights or is its violence making things even worse?"
French journalist Gilles Jacquier was killed in the city of Homs today on a government-sponsored trip of the city, becoming the first Western reporter killed during the Syria conflict. The perpetrators of the attack remain a mystery.
The Senate is almost set to consider a three-bill spending package that includes all the funding for the State Department and foreign operations, but two senators are refusing to go along because of language related to Cuba.
The Senate was stalled on Monday evening as senators started debate on the energy and water appropriations bill, which Senate Democratic leaders want to combine with the State and foreign ops and financial services appropriations bills into a miniature omnibus measure that's affectionately known on the Hill as a "minibus." By packaging three bills together, the Senate hopes to be able to get more work done faster. However, two senators won't let that happen until their concerns about language allowing U.S. banks to do business in Cuba are addressed.
"There is concern among a group of senators on both sides of the aisle with longstanding concerns for human rights and democracy in Cuba with regard to the loosening of restrictions on Cuba in the financial services bill," a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable Monday afternoon. "If that language was taken out, those senators would drop their objection to bringing up foreign ops for consideration."
Procedurally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has already brought up the energy and water appropriations bill and wants to add the other two bills (state/foreign ops and financial services) as an amendment. But Reid needs unanimous consent in order to do that without a lengthy cloture process, and we're told by Senate sources that Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) are objecting.
"Senator Rubio is objecting to a provision in the bill that would allow Cuba to become the only country on the State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list with a general exception for access to U.S.-based financial institutions," Rubio's spokesman Alex Conant told The Cable. "Under Cuban law, the Castro regime has a monopoly on all banking, commerce and trade, so this amendment would allow Cuba's totalitarian regime to directly open corresponding accounts in U.S.-based financial institutions, and vice versa."
The senators don't have any problem with the State and foreign ops section of the minibus, but Reid's attempt at adding both bills as one amendment has embroiled them in the dispute.
We're told by Senate sources that Reid plans to bring up the amendment containing both the State and foreign ops and financial services bills anyway and call for a unanimous consent vote, forcing any senators who object to show their cards. When the objections are made, Reid will be ready with a new amendment that doesn't contain the disputed Cuba provisions, which is likely to achieve unanimous consent.
After all this plays out, the real debate over the State and foreign ops appropriations bill can begin. When that happens, which will probably be late Monday evening or early Tuesday, senators will begin offering a host of amendments to the State and foreign ops bill.
Sen. Orin Hatch (R-UT) has introduced an amendment that would reinstate a ban on U.S. funding for foreign organizations that even discuss abortion. The amendment's language is a version of what has been known since 1984 as the Mexico City policy, named for the city where President Ronald Reagan first announced it. It's been a partisan ping-pong issue ever since: President Bill Clinton rescinded the policy in 1993, President George W. Bush reinstated it in 2001, and President Barack Obama rescinded it again in 2009. Republicans have since been trying to restore the policy under the Obama administration.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) introduced an amendment that would bar any funding for the administration to negotiate a United Nations arms trade treaty if it "restricts the Second Amendment rights of United States citizens."
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is expected to introduce an amendment to mandate sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran in response to the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and in light of a new International Atomic Energy Agency report, which states that Iran has made significant progress toward constructing a nuclear weapon.
And Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) introduced an amendment late on Monday that would prevent the president from trying to get around a law barring U.S. funding for UNESCO. The United States automatically cut off contributions to UNESCO this month when the organization overwhelmingly voted to admit Palestine as a member.
"Despite our legal obligation to suspend funding ... there have been some discussions, some speculation, that it may be possible to find alternative ways to financially support U.N. agencies like UNESCO that have taken this step of admitting the Palestinians as a member," Coats said on the Senate floor late Monday.
"That would be a total mistake and I want to reiterate the fact that it would be a violation of the law. And so, therefore, I come to the floor today to introduce a bill that serves as an emphatic statement, restatement of that."
Several more amendments are expected on Tuesday in what should be a lively debate over foreign affairs funding, if and when the Senate gets around to it. Of course, the Senate action is just a precursor to the House-Senate conference over the bill, where all the final decisions are made behind closed doors.
All the GOP presidential candidates agree on one thing: The United States should cut foreign assistance and international humanitarian assistance programs. Their only differences are over how much.
"The American people are suffering in our country right now. Why do we continue to send foreign aid to other countries when we need all the help we can get for ourselves?" asked a woman in the audience of Tuesday's GOP primary debate in Las Vegas.
Rick Perry started off the responses by calling for "a very serious discussion about defunding the United Nations." The crowd cheered and applauded.
Calling the Palestinian drive to seek member status at the United Nations in September a travesty, Perry said that was reason enough to stop contributing. "Why are we funding that organization?" he asked.
Mitt Romney said that defense-related portions of the foreign aid budget should be transferred to the Defense Department and humanitarian aid responsibilities should be ceded to the Chinese government.
"I happen to think it doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give it to another country for humanitarian aid. We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people that are -- and think of that borrowed money," he said to applause from the crowd.
If either of the leading candidates were somewhat measured, Ron Paul was not. He said that foreign aid "should be the easiest thing to cut" because it's not explicitly authorized in the Constitution. "To me, foreign aid is taking money from poor people in this country and giving it to rich people in poor countries, and it becomes weapons of war, essentially, no matter how well motivated it is," he said.
Paul also said we should cut all foreign aid to Israel. Michele Bachmann disagreed, taking the opportunity to make the case that President Barack Obama is the first president to put "daylight" between the United States and Israel.
"That's heavily contributed to the current hostilities that we see in the Middle East region," she said, reprising her criticism of the entire Arab Spring.
The candidates also weighed in on defense spending. Bachmann was asked if defense spending should be on the table for cuts, and wavered somewhat, opening the door to cuts while saying that $500 billion in defense budget cuts that would be triggered if the congressional supercommittee can't come to a deal to find at least $1.2 trillion in cuts was too much.
Newt Gingrich, calling himself a "cheap hawk," said that the supercommittee was not qualified to make such decisions and said the defense budget should be driven by strategy and threats, not arbitrary numbers.
"The idea that you'll have a bunch [of] historically illiterate politicians who have no sophistication about national security trying to make a numerical decision about the size of the defense budget tells you everything you need to know about the bankruptcy of the current elite in this country -- in both parties," he said.
For FP Passport's compilation of the debate's foreign policy highlights, click here.
The Cable reported yesterday that President Barack Obama waived penalties on several countries that recruit child soldiers for the second year in a row. Today, lawmakers moved to ensure that the administration won't keep funding governments that use child soldiers next year.
The administration waived penalties mandated under the Child Soldiers Protection Act (CSPA) against Yemen, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The administration didn't provide a justification for not penalizing South Sudan, because the 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which was released on June 27 and triggers the penalties, names "Sudan," not "South Sudan," as an abuser. South Sudan was declared independent on July 9, 12 days after the report came out.
"South Sudan wasn't a country during the reporting period and isn't subject to the CSPA; there are no penalties to waive under the law," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.
That explanation struck several congressional aides and human rights activists we spoke with today as too clever by half. After all, the TIP report was referring to use of child soldiers by the government of "Southern Sudan" and the Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which hasn't stopped the practice and will receive $100 million of U.S. taxpayers' money this year.
"They're using a legal and technical loophole to continue to build up partnership with a government that needs to be reminded how serious this problem is," said Sarah Margon, associate director for sustainable security and peace building at the Center for American Progress. "It's exactly how not to establish the message that they need to set up their government with full respect for human rights and transparency."
"At the time the TIP report came out, it was obvious South Sudan was going to be an independent country so any responsible person would have taken that into consideration," one senior House aide told The Cable. "Apart from the law, the White House still had discretion to address the issue as a policy matter and it chose not to condition any of the aid on the SPLA completing its demobilization of child soldiers."
The administration made the case that Chad has made sufficient progress on the child soldiers issue, and is no longer subject to penalties. "We've seen the government take concrete steps over the last year to implement policies and mechanisms to prohibit and prevent future government or government-supported use of child soldiers," Vietor said.
"The U.N.'s Chad Country Task Force has reported no verified cases of child soldiers in 2011, and Chad has put in place safeguards to prevent further use or recruitment of child soldiers. The president's reinstatement of assistance to Chad reflects this progress," he explained.
But several activists noted that the United Nations and State Department both kept Chad on their list of countries violating international standards for child recruitment this year, and that international monitors' limited access in Chad calls into question anybody's ability to verify whether the government has stopped using child soldiers.
Several aides and activists were angry at the administration for failing to adequately consult or even inform them of the waivers before they were announced. Administration officials briefed congressional staffers and NGO leaders yesterday, and journalists not at all.
"It also says something about the State Department's willingness to engage with civil society actors," said Margon. "It's a black mark on them in their ability to work with friends and allies on these issues. Why alienate the people who want to work with you on this stuff? It just doesn't make any sense."
Congress has no intention of letting this scenario play out again next year. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, successfully added an amendment to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act reauthorization bill today that would force the administration to give Congress 15 days notice before issuing waivers for the child-soldier penalties.
The amendment would also expand the law to include peacekeeping funds given to violator countries (such as Somalia), and force the White House to show that countries are making progress toward eliminating the use of child soldiers before receiving a waiver. Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and John Boozman (R-AR) have already introduced a companion measure in the Senate.
Not all Capitol Hill staffers were completely unsympathetic to the administration's arguments, however.
One Senate aide referred to the progress noted by the Obama administration in Chad and the partial cut of U.S. military assistance in the DRC as "welcome steps -- steps that might not have occurred without the force of the Child Soldier Prevention Act," noting that they "will require serious follow up attention."
But overall, the administration's roll out of the decision was panned by the NGO and human rights communities, which see the administration's action as undermining the intent of the legislation.
"At a time when Congress is locked in one of the most difficult budget battles I've ever seen, it is shameful that a portion of federal funding continues to help support governments who are abusing children," said Jesse Eaves, World Vision's policy advisor for children in crisis. "This is a very weak decision by an administration paralyzed with inaction. And the worst part is that thousands of children around the world -- not the politicians in the White House or the State Department -- are the ones who will suffer."
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
The United States and North Korea will hold their first direct talks since December 2009, as the Obama administration explores ways to return to multilateral talks on the Hermit Kingdom's nuclear program.
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan is already on the way to New York for the talks, which are supposed to happen either Thursday or Friday, according to State Department officials. The State Department hasn't announced its delegation to the talks, but we're told by two informed sources that Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the State Department's special representative for North Korea, is expected to participate. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited the delegation.
Following the Bosworth-Kim meeting, the North Korean delegation will meet with a group of U.S. experts and academics organized under the banner of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP), led on this project by former diplomat Donald Zagoria. NCAFP is hosting the meetings, as they did in October 2009, when North Korean negotiator Ri Gun came to New York under similar circumstances. At that time, Zagoria was joined by former diplomat George Schwab, Korea Society president Evans Revere, and former Ambassador to China Winston Lord.
Ri was spotted at the Beijing Airport with the North Korean delegation.
In a short phone interview, Zagoria told The Cable that the experts' meeting with the North Korean delegation was scheduled for Monday, Aug. 1, as a "Track 2" discussion -- diplo-speak for unofficial talks conducted by trusted private individuals. He declined to speak about the bilateral meeting, only saying that the experts' meetings had clear boundaries and realistic expectations.
"We started these meetings in 2003. We've had a number since then when it was possible," Zagoria said. "We hope to have frank discussions on the all the relevant issues. Our goal is to help both sides clearly understand each other's positions."
Joel Wit, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator who met with the North Koreans in Germany in March, told The Cable that the talks could signal the Obama administration's willingness to move away from its policy of "strategic patience," which basically amounts to waiting for the North Koreans to make positive moves while strengthening its alliances with Japan and South Korea.
The New York meetings are the second step of a three-step process to resume multilateral talks on North Korea's nuclear program, said Wit. The first step was for the North Koreans and South Koreans to resume discussions, which has already occurred. The second step is for the United States and North Korea to meet. And the final step is to resume the Six-Party Talks, which also involve China, Russia, and Japan.
Taking that third step won't be easy. The Obama administration has made clear it won't return to the Six-Party Talks until the North agrees to abide by its previous commitments on denuclearization. The DPRK now says that denuclearization must be achieved by both sides simultaneously and has started an ambitious uranium enrichment program.
Wit said that despite the gap in positions and the aggressive North Korean behavior, the United States should act now to jumpstart negotiations rather than allow the security situation on the Korean Peninsula to deteriorate further and let the North Korean nuclear program advance unchecked.
"We're rapidly approaching a point where we're going to have to make a serious decision about what we're going to do about their [uranium program]," said Wit. "So that means seriously considering some incentives, like reactor assistance.... It's something we've got to deal with before it gets out of hand."
Victor Cha, a former NSC director for Asia, said that North Korea's bad behavior since the Six-Party Talks were abandoned in 2008 shouldn't give anyone confidence that they are negotiating in good faith.
"It has been almost three years since a full round of Six-Party Talks, and since the last round, the North has done just about every heinous act in violation of the letter and spirit of the agreements that had been negotiated," he said. "No one expects North Korea is serious about denuclearization, and Pyongyang has done nothing during Obama's tenure to demonstrate otherwise."
The Obama administration has been quietly putting pressure on the South Korean government to relax its demands for an apology from North Korea over the sinking of the Cheonan warship and its shelling of a South Korean island, Cha said. The administration believes that North Korea will be less aggressive if talks are underway, he said.
"So there are clear tactical reasons for the U.S. to re-engage. But does anyone have a strategy? Pundits will call for a bigger and better agreement this time, but after 25 years and two agreements in 1994 and 2005, I am less confident that such an agreement is attainable," he said.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland set the expectations for this week's meetings low in Monday's press briefing.
"We see this as a preliminary session where we're going to lay out very clearly our expectations for what will be necessary to not only resume Six-Party Talks, but to improve direct engagement between the U.S. and the DPRK," said Nuland.
A senior State Department official, speaking to reporters during Clinton's trip to Asia, said that China was on board with a more active policy of engaging North Korea.
"I think despite the fact that China, in meetings with the United States, will rarely displays open displeasure, I think you can sense behind the scenes, there is substantial unhappiness with what's transpired with respect to Pyongyang's intransigence and provocative actions," the official said.
On the second day of its marathon markup session, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to reinstate and expand a wide-ranging ban on funding international non-governmental organizations that discuss abortion known as the Mexico City Policy.
Following a contentious day of debate Wednesday on Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's fiscal 2012 State Department and foreign operations authorization bill, the committee finally adjourned at 2 a.m. Thursday morning and then returned at 9 a.m. to resume work on the legislation. One of their first orders of business was to vote on an amendment by ranking Democrat Howard Berman to strip language that would ban any funding for groups that counsel women on family planning options from the bill.
The language that Berman wanted to strip reads: "None of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this act or any amendment made by this Act may be made available to any foreign nongovernmental organization that promotes or performs abortion, except in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term."
The bill's language is a version of what has been known since 1984 as the Mexico City Policy, named for the city where President Ronald Reagan first announced it. President Bill Clinton rescinded the policy in 1993, President George W. Bush reinstated it in 2001, and President Barack Obama rescinded it again in 2009.
Republicans have been trying to restore the policy ever since. Last year, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) helped defeat the International Violence Against Women Act by attaching the Mexico City Policy to the bill in committee, thereby preventing the legislation from reaching the Senate floor.
Berman's amendment failed by a 17-25 vote that played out largely along party lines. Only one Democrat broke ranks, Rep. Ben Chandler (D-KY). The Ros-Lehtinen language is actually an expansion of the policy as it existed during the Bush administration because it would ban all funding for organizations that discuss abortion and not make exceptions for certain programs such as HIV/AIDS funding. Bush made allowances for HIV/AIDS programs to receive funding even within organizations that were affected by the policy.
“The provision included in this bill is far more extreme than the Global Gag Rule policy that was implemented under Presidents Reagan, George Bush, or George W. Bush," said Berman. "It bars ALL assistance to local health care providers in poor countries – including HIV/AIDS funding, water and sanitation, child survival, and education. In the name of 'right to life,' the majority is cutting off funds that are literally saving hundreds of thousands of lives.”
There's no telling if Ros-Lehtinen's bill will ever see the House floor, much less become law or be signed by Obama, but the inclusion of the Mexico City Policy signals that the GOP intends to keep the issue alive throughout this year's cycle of authorization and appropriations bills, until or unless it is reinstated or defeated outright.
"It is a sad day for the millions of women around the world who need and want access to contraception," said Craig Lasher, director of government relations for Population Action International, an international NGO that advocates for women's access to contraception and reproductive counseling. "Committee members should be ashamed for taking the Republican Party's war on women to the global stage."
Two GOP senators opened another line of criticism of President Barack Obama's approach to the Middle East on Thursday, this time calling on the administration to more strongly criticize the Syrian government for its deadly crackdown on popular demonstrations and begin engaging the Syrian opposition.
Government violence against protesters in Syria is escalating, with security forces reportedly killing 15 people on Wednesday during a raid on a mosque in the southern city of Deraa. Some reports put the night's death toll at 37 or more. The State Department put out a statement condemning the deaths and issued a 90-day travel alert on Thursday that warned Americans about the violence surrounding the protests.
"The United States is deeply troubled by violence and civilian deaths in Dara'a at the hands of security forces. We are concerned by the Syrian Government's use of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests in Dara'a to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal rights. We condemn these actions and extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who have been injured or lost their lives. We call on the Syrian Government to exercise restraint and refrain from violence against peaceful protestors," The statement read.
But Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) want to know if the Obama administration is reaching out to Syrian opposition leaders and offering them support, as it did in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
"The Syrian people must know that the United States stands with them against the brutal Assad regime. We can ill afford another timid embrace of a democratic uprising," the senators said in a Thursday statement. "We urge the President, Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Ford to publicly condemn the murders committed by the Assad dictatorship and to demonstrate their support for the Syrian people."
By invoking Ambassador Robert Ford, Kyl and Kirk are calling for the administration to make good on its argument that the United States needed an ambassador in Damascus to have maximum influence with the Syrian government. Kyl and others Republicans held up the Ford nomination for 10 months because they saw the appointment of any ambassador as a reward to the Syrian regime, and they wanted the administration to more clearly spell out its Syria policy.
The president used a recess appointment for Ford to circumvent the Senate confirmation process. Kyl and Kirk now want Ford to use his perch to condemn the Syrian regime's crackdown.
"Ambassador Ford should begin a sustained campaign of outreach from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to the Syrian opposition movement," they said.
The Syrian government and the U.S. embassy in Syria have never been close: An internal report last April stated that the access of embassy officials to those inside the regime is scarce. This makes the danger for Americans in Syria even graver.
It is still unclear who has organized the demonstrations in Syria, so the Obama administration may find it difficult to engage with opposition figures, even if it wanted to.
Pressure on the administration to get tough with the Syrian regime is growing. The Washington Post printed an editorial today that called on Obama to demand an investigation into the killings in Deraa and tighten sanctions on Damascus.
"After Wednesday's massacre, Syrians are likely to feel still angrier - but they also will be watching the response of the outside world," the editorial stated. "That's why it is essential that the United States and Syria's partners in Europe act quickly to punish Mr. Assad's behavior. Verbal condemnations will not be enough."
UPDATE: Late Thursday afternoon, the office of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney put out the following strongly worded statement on the violence in Syria:
The United States strongly condemns the Syrian government’s brutal repression of demonstrations, in particular the violence and killings of civilians at the hands of security forces. We reject the use of violence under any circumstances. We are also deeply troubled by the arbitrary arrests of human rights activists and others. Those responsible for the violence must be held accountable. The United States stands for a set of universal rights, including the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and believes that governments must be responsive to the legitimate aspirations of their people. We call on the Syrian government to exercise restraint and respect the rights of its people and call on all citizens to exercise their rights peacefully.
Congress may hold a vote on President Barack Obama's decision to attack Libya when lawmakers return from recess next week, according to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL).
Durbin, along with Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Jack Reed (D-RI) held a conference call with reporters on Wednesday afternoon as part of the White House's damage control effort following the widespread and bipartisan criticism over of the lack of congressional consultation before the intervention in Libya, and the lack of clarity over the mission's goals.
"None of us can say with any certainty what will happen when we return, but under the War Powers Act, any senator can ask under privilege of the Senate to call this question, as to whether or not we will support these actions taken by the president," Durbin said. "I think it's consistent with our constitutional responsibility to take up that question," through a vote
Asked by The Cable how Congress plans to pay for the Libya intervention, the costs of which are approaching $1 billion, Durbin said, "I haven't heard anything on that score yet."
The War Powers Resolution of 1973, which Durbin said provides for a vote, allows the president to commit U.S. forces for 60 days without the explicit authorization of Congress, with another 30 days allowed for the withdrawal of those forces.
"The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to a declaration of war, a specific statutory authorization, or a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces," the law states.
The law also stipulates that if both chambers of Congress pass a resolution calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the president must comply. If such a resolution is introduced, it must be reported out of that chamber's foreign relations committee within 15 days. After that it automatically becomes the pending business of that chamber and must be voted on within 3 days.
"There may be some people who will try to end the [Libya] effort, if they try they won't come anywhere near success in the Senate," Levin said. "The reason I think the president will gain bipartisan support for his action is because he's proceeded in a way which is cautious, thoughtful. He has put the ducks in a row before deciding to put the United States in the lead for a short period of time."
Durbin and Levin each made one of the two arguments the White House has used for why the military intervention in Libya was justified -- that the intervention was necessary to halt a humanitarian crisis in Libya, and that it was needed to support the democratic revolution in the Arab world.
"The short term military goal had to be taken very, very quickly or there would have been a slaughter in Benghazi, which has been avoided," Levin said.
"The United States is trying to make sure our position is consistent with our national values," Durbin said.The senators also defended the White House's consultations with Congress, referring to a March 17 classified briefing at the Capitol, which occurred while the administration was already pressing for intervention at the United Nations, and a March 18 briefing at the White House, only 90 minutes before the plan to attack was announced.
The Senate will have its first chance to press the administration on the Libya war on Tuesday, when Adm. James Stavridis, commander of U.S. European Command (USEUCOM), testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which Levin chairs.
Levin acknowledged that while the major military operations to establish the no-fly zone may end soon, the U.S. military commitment to the overall mission is open ended. Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead also said Tuesday he did not know exactly what the transition of command would mean for U.S. military involvement.
"Involvement in terms of being the lead in establishing the no-fly zone will be very short. Involvement in terms of supporting the continuation of the no-fly zone I think will be ongoing," Levin said.
As President Barack Obama stopped by the Japanese embassy to pay his respects to those who lost their lives in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami crisis, the State Department was scrambling to help Americans evacuate northern Japan.
"Even as Japanese responders continue to do heroic work, we know that the damage to the nuclear reactors in Fukushima Daiichi plant poses a substantial risk to people who are nearby," Obama said on Thursday in the White House Rose Garden after returning from the Japanese embassy, where he signed the condolence book. "That is why yesterday we called for an evacuation of American citizens who are within 50 miles of the plant. This decision was based upon a careful scientific evaluation and the guidelines that we would use to keep our citizens safe here in the United States or anywhere in the world."
Obama authorized the voluntary departures of family members and dependents of U.S. officials working in northeastern Japan on Wednesday night. The State Department has deployed teams around northern Japan to help any U.S. citizens who want to leave.
Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy told reporters that the first U.S. chartered flight left Japan on Thursday morning, Washington-time, as part of the State Department's new policy of aiding the departure of U.S. citizens. The plane took the citizens to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. Embassy teams were at Tokyo's Haneda and Narita airports sweeping for U.S. citizens who wanted to leave.
The U.S. embassy is also sending 14 buses to pick up Americans living north of the nuclear plant in Sendai province. This assistance was necessary in order to get them to the airport because of the lack of transportation in that area, Kennedy said.
Kennedy also defended the U.S. embassy's Thursday advisory that citizens should stay at least 50 miles from the reactor, which is more aggressive than the 20 kilometer no-travel zone that the Japanese government has imposed. The Defense Department has authorized departure for families of service members for the entire main Japanese island of Honshu, but State hasn't gone that far.
Kennedy said that, at present, there won't be any authorization for non-essential State or DOD personnel to leave Japan, as they are needed to aid in the crisis response.
"It is our determination that all State Department personnel -- and I believe, after some conversations I had with the Pentagon, which you can address direct to them -- that they have also determined that all employees, service members in that case, constitute emergency cadre who are needed to carry out the national security and the assistance missions and the military missions that we're engaged in," Kennedy said.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizens Services Jim Pettit said that, in addition to consular teams in both Tokyo airports, there are also consular teams searching for Americans in areas north of Tokyo, such as Miyagi, Iwate, and Ibaraki prefectures. But there won't be any search efforts inside the 50-mile evacuation zone around the Fukushima reactor.
When asked if he thought that they would find Americans still inside the evacuation zone, Pettit said, "I would be surprised if we don't."
Kennedy said that the United States had an agreement with the consular teams from Canada, Britain, and Australia to report to each other if they find another's citizen in distress. To date, there are no confirmed deaths of American citizens.
He estimated there are about 90,000 Americans in and around Tokyo and about 350,000 Americans in Japan.
Obama spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Thursday night and pledged whatever support the United States could provide.
"In the coming days, we will continue to do everything we can to ensure the safety of American citizens and the security of our sources of energy," Obama said. "And we will stand with the people of Japan as they contain this crisis, recover from this hardship and rebuild their great nation."
Freshman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) lashed out at the Obama administration's Libya policy on Thursday, saying that the United States looked weak and naïve in hoping that the U.N. Security Council would act to protect the Libyan people.
"The United States, quite frankly, looks weak in this endeavor, it looks unwilling to act," he said at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Thursday, highlighting that Britain, France, the Arab League, and the Libyan opposition are all calling on the United States to support stronger measures to stop Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's assault on rebels and civilians.
"The president has specifically said that Qaddafi must go but has done nothing since then except for having general debates about it for a week and a half or two," Rubio said. "Congressional leadership has strongly called for a no-fly zone and nothing has happened."
The stance of Rubio, the committee's newest Republican, it exactly opposite of the committee's top Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN), who said at the same hearing that a no fly zone was not a good idea and would require a Congressional declaration of war.
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns emphasized that the United States was pushing for stronger action at the Security Council, with new resolution coming as early as today. He said the United States was "leading the effort," along with France and Britain, to get authorization for a number of military actions -- short of boots on the ground.
But Rubio was extremely skeptical that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council would endorse military intervention in Libya.
"To say that we're pressing the United Nations and that's energetic action is to basically say... that the United States may feel strongly about something but we're not doing anything that the Chinese and Russians don't agree to," said Libya.
Burns said the measures would be more effective with international support.
"But Russia and China don't care about this stuff, they're never going to get involved in these things, and they don't care if Muammar Qaddafi is trying to massacre people," Rubio said. "So if Russia doesn't care and China doesn't care and we care but won't do anything about it, who's it up to, the French?"
Burns said he didn't share Rubio's assessment that the U.N. Security Council won't be able to come up with a new resolution.
"When is that resolution going to happen, after the bloodbath?" Rubio shot back.
Burns predicted a resolution could come as early as today.
But Rubio wasn't done. He asked Burns how China and Russia would respond if America shows it doesn't "have the guts" to act on behalf of opposition groups. He also asked Burns about the U.S. message to Libyan opposition fighters, who are clamoring for U.S. support while the United Nations deliberates.
"Our message to them is, ‘you guys go ahead and do this stuff and if we ever get the Russians and the Chinese to come around, we may or may not join you?'" Rubio wondered.
Rubio then pressed Burns to describe the administration's backup plan, in the event that the United Nations can't agree on a resolution.
"We have lots of ideas about what we might do, we just don't assume it's going to fail," Burns said.
"Are there any ideas you can share with us?" Rubio demanded.
"We'll continue to step up economic pressure and sanctions," Burns suggested.
Before the 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Japan on March 10, one of the biggest news stories in Tokyo was then State Department Director of Japan Affairs Kevin Maher's alleged remarks disparaging Okinawans for their stance on the relocation of a U.S. air base on the island. Maher was removed his post due to the controversy, but nevertheless has been working around the clock to help lead the U.S. government's response to the crisis.
Inside the "Operations Center" on the 7th floor of the State Department's headquarters in Foggy Bottom, the Japan Earthquake Task Force is working 24 hours a day to coordinate U.S. assistance to the stricken area and keep lines of communication open between U.S. government agencies, foreign governments, and non-governmental organizations on the ground. Maher is the coordinator for the night shift (daytime in Japan), and has been working from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. every night since the quake hit.
Maher was removed as director of the Japan office at State on March 9, following reports that he told a group of American University (AU) students that Okinawan people were masters of "extortion," but he was not fired and it was never proven that he made the incendiary comments. Maher has denied the accuracy of the press reports regarding his comments. According to State Department sources, he planned to retire following the controversy, but has now put off that retirement to contribute to the earthquake response, which could last for a while.
Maher is uniquely qualified to help in the response, and not just because he led the Japan Affairs office until the day before the quake. He has served in Japan multiple times during his career, and was the U.S. embassy's minister-counselor for environment, science and technology affairs in Tokyo from 2001 to 2005, during which time he covered the nuclear industry.
Ironically, Maher's experience as consul in Okinawa from 2006 to 2009 might also come in handy. Maher's alleged remarks to the AU students spoke to the frustration of both U.S. and Japanese officials about the plan to relocate the Marine Corps air base in Futenma to a different part of Okinawa's main island. Many Okinawans oppose having a base on the island at all.
But as it turns out, the Futenma air base has been active in supporting the earthquake relief response, including deploying helicopters to aid in search and recovery of victims of the devastating tsunami.
The State Department's task force is made up of 14 people representing various bureaus and offices throughout the administration. Their job is to coordinate the U.S. government and military response and serve as the central point of contact for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other principals, while, acting as the main communication link to the U.S. embassy in Japan.
The coordinator for the day shift is Rust Deming, a professor of Japan studies at Johns Hopkins and a former ambassador to Tunisia, who stepped in to head up the State Department's Japan office when Maher stepped down last week. Deming has held much more senior positions, so his reappearance in the East Asian and Pacific (EAP) bureau is seen as a temporary step to draw upon his expertise until a full-time replacement can be found.
USAID also has established a Response Management Team (RMT) on the 9th floor of its headquarters in downtown Washington's Ronald Reagan building, headed by Mark Bartolini, which is tasked with supporting USAID's disaster and assistance response team (DART) on the ground in Japan and with coordinating the humanitarian side of the U.S. government assistance effort.
For close observers of the U.S.-Japan relationship, the Maher incident shows that more needs to be done to build trust between officials on both sides to ensure that smaller issues don't get blown out of proportion such that larger cooperation suffers, especially in an emergency.
"The alliance managers showed a lack of courage by throwing [Maher] under the bus," and removing him from his post, one Washington Japan expert told The Cable. "But now they realize they need all Japan hands on deck for this crisis."
The State Department, the Defense Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are sending emergency assistance to Japan in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami disaster, while a host of agencies work to mitigate the collateral damage in Hawaii and the West Coast.
"I'm heartbroken by this tragedy," President Barack Obama said at his Friday press conference. "On behalf of the American people, I conveyed our deepest condolences, especially to the victims and their families, and I offered our Japanese friends whatever assistance is needed."
Obama was awoken at 4 a.m. Friday morning with the news that the 8.9 magnitude earthquake had struck off the shore of Japan, near the island of Honshu. The president spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan shortly thereafter. U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos spoke with Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and moved U.S. embassy personnel to a new location as a precaution.
Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Janice L. Jacobs told reporters Friday that there are no reports yet of U.S. citizens killed or injured by the disaster, but that State has set up a task force and citizens in Japan can reach them at email@example.com. U.S. citizens in need outside Japan should write to firstname.lastname@example.org. The State Department also issued a travel alert advising U.S. citizens not to visit Japan.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was in Tokyo on Wednesday when the first "foreshock," which was a magnitude 7.2 earthquake, struck. However, he was in Mongolia when the big quake hit at 2:36 p.m. Tokyo time on Thursday afternoon.
USAID has taken lead on the international crisis response, and is sending a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to Japan. It is also coordinating the dispatch of the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Team and the Los Angeles County Search and Rescue Team, both of which responded in conjunction with USAID to the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Each USAR team will have about 72 people, some dogs, 75 tons of rescue equipment, and USAID disaster experts in tow.
"We are working with the government of Japan to provide any assistance needed in the rescue effort as quickly as possible," USAID administrator Rajiv Shah said in a statement.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a meeting of the President's Export Council Friday that the U.S. military delivered coolant to a nuclear plant in Japan. The Japanese government has declared an "atomic power emergency" at the Fukushima No. 1 plant in Fukushima Prefecture.
"We just had our Air Force assets in Japan transport some really important coolant to one of the nuclear plants," Clinton said. "You know Japan is very reliant on nuclear power and they have very high engineering standards but one of their plants came under a lot of stress with the earthquake and didn't have enough coolant," Clinton said.
No major damage has been reported to U.S. naval forces stationed in Yokosuka. The Joint Chiefs of Staff said they were responding to the crisis in the following ways: "The USS Tortuga in Sasebo, Japan, is preparing to load landing craft and to leave for the disaster areas as early as this evening. The USS Essex, with the embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, arrived in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, this morning. The ship is preparing to depart as early as this evening. The USS Blue Ridge, in Singapore, is taking on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies and preparing to depart tomorrow morning. The USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group, at sea in the western Pacific on its way to Korea, can respond if directed."
"I've been kept informed all day long about the tsunami in Japan, the earthquake and tsunami," Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is in Bahrain, said in a statement. "As best we can tell, all of our people are OK, our ships and military facilities are all in pretty good shape. We obviously have huge sympathy for the people of Japan and we are prepared to help them in any way we possibly can. It's obviously a very sophisticated country, but this is a huge disaster and we will do all, anything we are asked to do to help out."
Back in the United States, the response is being led by FEMA in coordination with the U.S. Geological Survey and the NOAA National Weather Service. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said on a conference call that FEMA had dispatched an emergency team to Hawaii.
Dave Applegate, senior science advisor for earthquakes and geologic hazards at USGS, said that waves peaked in Hilo, Hawaii at around 9 a.m. local time and should have died down by now. Crescent City Harbor, CA saw waves of about 8 feet at around noon. While no substantial damage was reported on the west coast of the United States, the damage in Japan is massive.
"Economic losses are estimated to be in the tens of billions, just from the shaking alone, not the tsunami," Applegate said, explaining that the force of the earthquake was equal to 30 times the strength of the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
The quake broke a segment of the plate boundary between the Pacific plate and an extension of the North American plate and more aftershocks are expected. There's a 5 percent chance the aftershocks could be even worse than Thursday's quake, Applegate said.
"They will continue for not just days but weeks and months or even years."
For a list of ways to contribute to the aid effort in Japan, click here.
UPDATE: The Associated Press reported late Friday that Clinton misspoke and that the Japanese had politely declined the U.S. offer to bring nuclear coolant to the Fukushima power plant.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley is already the subject of one controversy today due to remarks he made about the treatment of alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning. But Crowley is also in trouble due to a tweet he sent out this morning -- and later deleted -- comparing the situation in the Middle East to the disaster in Japan.
"We've been watching hopeful #tsunami sweep across #MiddleEast. Now seeing a tsunami of a different kind sweep across Japan," Crowley tweeted Friday morning, a State Department official confirmed to The Cable. Crowley's Twitter site no longer includes the tweet, suggesting that he deleted it after the fact. Crowley didn't immediately respond to a request from The Cable.
Multiple administration sources told The Cable that the Defense Department leadership was very upset with Crowley about both incidents.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama was asked at his Friday press conference if he agreed with Crowley's statements at MIT on Thursday that Manning's treatment by the Defense Department was "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid."
Obama said that he had personally asked the Pentagon if the conditions imposed on Manning were really necessary.
"They assured me that they are," Obama said. He wouldn't go into detail but added that, "some of this has to do with Private Manning's safety."
Reached by The Cable, Crowley confirmed that he did in fact make the remarks. "What I said was my personal opinion. It does not reflect an official USG policy position. I defer to the Department of Defense regarding the treatment of Bradley Manning," he said.
Though the Obama administration hasn't yet decided whether or how to aid the Libyan opposition, the White House is working to stop the flow of mercenaries fighting for Qaddafi entering the country from countries surrounding Libya like Chad and Niger.
"We've been working to ensure there isn't a flow of people into Libya," said Samantha Power, the National Security Council's senior director for multilateral affairs, on a Wednesday conference call with non-governmental groups. The call was off the record, but a recording was provided to The Cable.
Power didn't go into detail about whether or not the administration believes that Qaddafi is still trying to import mercenaries and she didn't going into detail about what the U.S. was doing to stop the flow of people into Libya.
Power was responding to a question about what the White House was doing to make sure violence in Libya didn't spill over into other countries, such as Sudan. She responded that the White House was monitoring the flow of migrant workers as well as those who might be coming to Libya to fight in the conflict.
"There's always danger of flows in both directions that we're very much on the lookout for," she said.
There are still thousands of migrant workers trapped in Libya and non-governmental organization leaders on the call were also concerned that the flow of goods through Libya to its neighbors might also be disrupted.
Power also said that the administration was increasingly reaching out to opposition groups in Libya, with the goal of setting up reliable communications to better understand the situation on the ground.
"Our contacts with the Libya opposition are expanding," she said, but added that the opposition leaders the White House was speaking with were having problems setting up reliable ways to keep in touch.
That's complicating the administration's drive to provide assistance to civilians trying to leave Libya and also to prevent potential fighters who are trying to get in, Power said.
"We are looking at ways to make sure that message is out there but it's a very challenging problem right now," she said.
The administration has been stepping up its assistance to migrant workers who want to leave Libya, sending Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration Eric Schwartz and USAID Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Nancy Lindborg to Tunisia and Egypt this week.
They are meeting with government officials, international organizations, and nongovernmental organization representatives, according to the State Department, and the American officials will have role in deciding how to disperse the $30 million that the United States has allocated for humanitarian assistance to the victims of the crisis in Libya.
Ambassador Gene Cretz, the same U.S. diplomat who was forced to leave Libya after WikiLeaks released cables signed by him referring to Qaddafi's "voluptuous" blonde nurse, met with Libyan opposition leaders in Rome and Cairo this week, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the administration's internal debate over whether to take more aggressive steps to aid the Libyan opposition continues. President Barack Obama and White House staff continue to say that all options remain on the table, while the Defense Department and the State Department continue to express logistical and legal justifications for why actions such as arming the rebels or imposing a no fly zone might not be a good idea.
On Tuesday, the White House sent out a read out of Obama's call with British Prime Minister David Cameron that maintained planning was going forward on several options for intervention in Libya.
"The President and the Prime Minister agreed to press forward with planning, including at NATO, on the full spectrum of possible responses, including surveillance, humanitarian assistance, enforcement of the arms embargo, and a no fly zone," the readout said.
Earlier that day, senior U.S. defense officials warned senators that the no-fly zone would be a full-combat operation, requiring extensive commitments of manpower and resources. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that a no-fly zone means "you would be entering into combat operations there."
"The first element, I believe, of entering into a no-fly zone is likely combat operations on Libya. And so I think in talking about a no-fly zone, there are some precursor steps that have to be taken," said Roughead, "And then it's also the issue of what are the forces that would be used, where are they postured, what are the basing, the over-flight issues. I think all of those have to be sorted through. We've done no-fly zones before, and there is a significant infrastructure that backs them up, whether it's naval or land-based."
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) also struck back on Tuesday at the State Department's claim that arming the Libyan opposition would be "illegal" under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970.
"The President has consistently and correctly said that ‘all options are on the table' in Libya. If the State Department's statement today is correct, however, it means one of the most effective options to help the Libyan people has been taken off the table. We urge the Administration to clarify its position on this important issue," the senators said in a statement.
The U.S. intelligence community has been behind events throughout the Arab world for over a month and producing deficient work, the Senate's top leader on intelligence issues complained to the head of the CIA.
"Our intelligence, and I see it all, is way behind the times. It is inadequate. And this is a very serious problem," Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday.
Feinstein criticized the U.S. government's intelligence products in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya, saying that the intelligence community has given her "nothing that we didn't read in the newspapers" since January.
"The only one where there was good intelligence was Tunisia," she said, "but really no intelligence on any of the others, whether it was Yemen, or Bahrain, or Egypt... nothing."
Feinstein said she recently raised her unhappiness over the intelligence community's work directly with CIA Director Leon Panetta, who promised to produce better information for lawmakers.
"It's going to be improved. Mr. Panetta is aware of this and is going to take action," she explained.
She attributed the shoddy work product to a lack of human intelligence assets on the ground in the Middle East as well as the intelligence community's failure to maximize the use of open source information, including social networks, which Feinstein said accounts for an increasing amount of raw intelligence.
"I'm not a big computer person but I just went up on one of these sites and all I had to do was look," Feinstein said.
Feinstein said that she has not spoken about the issue with the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Feinstein also joined the growing chorus of senior Democratic senators who oppose any type of military intervention in Libya, including arming rebel groups or imposing a no-fly zone.
"This is a civil war. It is not Qaddafi invading another country. I think [arming the rebels] is an act of war and particularly the no-fly zone is [an act of war]," she said.
The U.S. government shouldn't set a precedent for intervening in Arab civil wars, Feinstein said. She said that such a step could lead to more interventions by the U.S. military, which is already strained by the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The Saudis -- Do you put a no fly zone up there if this happens there? Bahrain -- Do you put a no-fly zone up there? We've got our hands full," she said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) has repeatedly called on the administration to work with allies to set up a no-fly zone over Libya. But Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) is also against the idea for now.
"There are a lot of questions that need to be answered before that option can be exercised," Levin told The Cable. "Not only what is the mission, what are the risks, but also who are the supporters of it. If there is no support in the Arab and Muslim world or neighboring countries, what it could result in would be a very negative outcome."
Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), an Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee member and former secretary of the Navy, also said on Tuesday that armed intervention in Libya on behalf of the rebels was not wise at this time.
"We all know that military commitments, however small, are easily begun and in this region particularly very difficult to end," said Webb. "I am of the opinion that it's not a good idea to give weapons and military support to people who you don't know."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) just became the most senior foreign-policy figure in Washington to outwardly call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down from power now.
"Regrettably the time has come 4 Pres. Mubarak 2 step down & relinquish power. It's in the best interest of Egypt, its people & its military," he tweeted Wednesday afternoon.
McCain, who met with President Obama at the White House Wednesday, went further than either the administration or Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who have called for Mubarak not to run again for president but have stopped short of calling for him to relinquish power at this time.
The message from McCain was not some coordinated communications strategy cooked up with the White House, according to our sources, but simply represented McCain's latest analysis of the ever worsening situation on the ground in Egypt and the handling of the crisis by Mubarak and his regime.
Only yesterday, McCain was supporting the administration's official line. On Tuesday, he praised Obama's call for Mubarak to begin an orderly transition to democracy and to not run for reelection.
"I'm not going to try to second-guess the president at this difficult time," McCain told reporters. "I think there should be a transition and an orderly one."
McCain's call for Mubarak to step aside immediately is also notable because McCain has been arguing strenuously in recent days that the Muslim Brotherhood, which stands to benefit from a free election, is a dangerous and violent organization.
"Have no doubt about the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood. They're a radical organization, they support Hamas, and they would be very bad for Egypt," McCain said Tuesday.
Last fall, McCain led a drive to pass a Senate resolution calling on Mubarak to advance political reform and calling on the Obama administration to press Mubarak on human rights. That resolution died before reaching a vote on the Senate floor.
"We've got to be on the right side of history," McCain told The Cable Tuesday. "If you're on the right side of history, everything will turn out OK."
Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has a message for those in Congress who want to slash development and foreign-aid budgets: Cuts will undermine U.S. national security.
On the heels of a major speech on the coming reforms to America's premier development agency, Shah sat down for an exclusive interview with The Cable to explain his vision for making USAID more responsible and accountable, an effort he said will require increased short-term investment in order to realize long-term savings.
But if Congress follows through on a massive defunding of USAID as the 165-member Republican Study Group recommended yesterday, it would not only put USAID's reforms in jeopardy, but have real and drastic negative implications for American power and the ongoing missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Shah.
"That first and foremost puts our national security in real jeopardy because we are working hand and glove with our military to keep us safe," said Shah, referring to USAID missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and Central America, and responding directly to congressional calls for cuts in foreign aid and development.
The RSC plan calls for $1.39 billion in annual savings from USAID. The USAID operating budget for fiscal 2010 was approximately $1.65 billion. The RSC spending plan summary was not clear if all the cuts would come from operations or from USAID administered programs.
"That would have massive negative implications for our fundamental security," said Shah. "And as people start to engage in a discussion of what that would mean for protecting our border, for preventing terrorist safe havens and keeping our country safe from extremists' ideology … and what that would mean for literally taking children that we feed and keep alive through medicines or food and leaving them to starve. I think those are the types of things people will back away from."
The interests between the development community and U.S. national security objectives don't always align, and this tension is at the core of the debate on how to reinvigorate USAID. Short-term foreign-policy objectives sometimes don't match long-term development needs, and U.S. foreign-policy priorities are not made with development foremost in mind.
But Shah's ambitious drive to reform USAID seems to embrace the idea that development investments can be justified due to their linkage with national security. He is preparing to unveil next month USAID's first ever policy on combating violent extremism and executing counterinsurgency. He also plans to focus USAID's efforts on hot spots like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, while transitioning away from other countries that are faring well and downgrading the agency's presence in places like Paris, Rome, and Tokyo.
Shah pointed out that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and ISAF Commander Gen. David Petraeus have all come out in strong support of increasing USAID's capacity to do foreign aid.
"In the military they call us a high-value, low-density partner because we are of high value to the national security mission but there aren't enough of us and we don't have enough capability," he said. "This is actually a much, much, much more efficient investment than sending in our troops, not even counting the tremendous risk to American lives when we have to do that."
For those less concerned with matters of national security, Shah also framed his argument for development aid in terms of increased domestic economic and job opportunities: If we want to export more, we need to help develop new markets that are U.S.-friendly.
"If we are going to be competitive as a country and create jobs at home, we cannot ignore the billions of people who are currently very low income but will in fact form a major new middle-class market in the next two decades," he said.
One of the main criticisms of USAID both on Capitol Hill and elsewhere is that the agency has been reduced over the years to not much more than a contracting outfit, disbursing billions of dollars around the world to organizations that have mixed performance records. In Shah's view, if Congress wants USAID to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse, it has to increase the agency's operating budget and allow the agency to monitor contracts in-house.
"It was the Bush administration that helped launch the effort to reinvest in USAID's capabilities and hiring and people, and the reason they did that is they recognized you save a lot more money by being better managers of contracts," Shah said. "We have a choice. We have a critical need to make the smart investments in our own operations … which over time will save hundreds of millions of dollars, as opposed to trying to save a little bit now by cutting our capacity to do oversight and monitoring."
Shah wouldn't comment on the latest and greatest USAID contracting scandal, where the agency suspended contractor AED from receiving any new contracts amid allegations of widespread fraud. But he did say that his office would be personally reviewing large sole-source contracts from now on, requiring independent and public evaluations, and that more corrective actions are in the works.
"I suspect you'll see more instances of effective, proactive oversight that in fact saves American taxpayers significant resources," he said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) arrived in Sudan on Tuesday, where he will spend the entire week in the lead-up to the long-awaited Jan. 9 referendum that could lead to Southern Sudan's emergence as an independent country.
"Sudan is at a pivotal moment," Kerry said in a statement. "The United States played an important role in ending the civil war in Sudan and making the vote this Sunday possible. Our commitment to the Sudanese people will extend beyond the referendum, whatever its outcome, as we work to improve economic and humanitarian conditions in the region."
This is Kerry's fourth trip to Sudan since first traveling there in April 2009. He met with senior leaders from the north and the south during his last trip in October. Last September, Kerry introduced the Sudan Peace and Stability Act of 2010, which calls for the U.S. government to provide increased aid to Southern Sudan, develop contingency planning in case violence breaks out, review existing sanctions if the country splits into two, appoint a full-time senior official to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and develop a multiyear strategy for helping end the Darfur tragedy.
Meanwhile, the administration's Sudan team is working furiously to help set the conditions for a free and fair election and to ensure that the outcome will be honored by both sides. The administration team -- led by special envoy Scott Gration and Ambassador Princeton Lyman -- is involved in every aspect of the process. Also, teams from the State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization are spread across Southern Sudan as part of the preparation and monitoring effort.
Gration said last month that one crucial effort was to determine the future status of Abyei, a disputed, oil-rich region that will not be voting next week because of disagreements over voter eligibility and logistical delays. If the country splits, the north and the south could both claim ownership of Abyei, turning the region into a potential flashpoint for renewed conflict.
"We are working with both sides to calm the rhetoric and put a plan in place that will give both sides reassurances," Gration said about the Abyei situation. "This is probably not a situation where either side will be happy. We're looking for a solution that leaves both sides angry but neither side mad."
The ruling regime in the north, led by indicted war criminal President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been accused by human rights groups of attempting to intimidate voters ahead of the polls. Although Bashir, who is currently in Juba, has said that he would honor the south's secession, the fear is that Bashir's government will not let the south secede and will use a variety of measures ranging from violence to legal challenges to resist implementing the election results.
Considering that the international community has so far been unable to force Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo to honor his country's poll results, there's real concern that Bashir may prove to be an even bigger obstacle to next week's election in Sudan.
"Ivory Coast really is a test case. There is a great deal of diplomacy occurring now, with escalating costs and consequences for the government of the Ivory Coast for what they are doing," John Prendergast, CEO of the Enough Project, told ABC This Week's Jake Tapper. "Similarly in Sudan, there has to be a cost and a consequence. If the government of Sudan is going to undermine this referendum, if the government of Sudan is going to continue to undertake terrible human rights violations in Darfur, there has to be a diplomatic consequence."
One of the two biggest problems identified in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Strategy Review released Thursday (PDF) is the Pakistani military's failure to crack down on some of the terrorist groups using Pakistan's tribal areas as a safe haven from which to launch attacks across the border into Afghanistan.
Pakistan launched a major offensive, involving approximately 30,000 troops, against extremists in South Waziristan in October 2009, and its military has also undertaken efforts to stamp out militants in other border areas. However, the military has yet to launch offensive military operations in North Waziristan, where insurgent groups wreaking havoc in Afghanistan reside.
Pakistan's envoy in Washington, Ambassador Husain Haqqani, reacted to the report by saying that Pakistan will engage Islamist groups in North Waziristan, including the Haqqani network (no relation), but only when there is sufficient support in all areas of Pakistan's government for the effort, and not until they are confident that the mission can be completed effectively.
"Pakistan has made it very clear that we are fighting terrorists because they are a threat to our own existence as a modern democratic nation. We will fight all groups in all parts of our country," Haqqani said in an exclusive interview with The Cable. "But we will follow timelines that suit our own capabilities and can lead to success."
Haqqani said that the Pakistani army, which has taken the fight to six out of the seven regions inside Pakistan in which domestic militant groups operate and suffered thousands of casualties in the process, is simply not in a position to expand its war on the extremists now.
"Right now, it's only a question of operational capability and readiness. Our armed forces have been engaged in dealing with flood relief work," he said. "We have to see what resources we will allocate in which part of the country, and those rather than any political factors are responsible for any waiting period."
He also noted that "there is a fragile consensus in Pakistan in favor of military action against regional elements," and that Pakistan's government has no choice but to make the decision to attack North Waziristan groups on a timeline that prioritized Pakistani considerations over American ones.
"Sometimes it's easy for our allies to tell us what to do and for us to tell our allies what to do. But everyone makes decisions based on their own perceptions and analysis of on ground realities," Haqqani said.
In several discussions with other Pakistani officials, an even more complicated picture of the Pakistani position on attacking groups in North Waziristan emerges. The Pakistanis largely believe that the U.S. government is being unrealistic in terms of the timelines it wants for cracking down on terrorist safe havens along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which have existed for decades.
"There will always be a gap between our two countries because the Americans want things things done quickly and done their way," another Pakistani government official said.
A third senior Pakistani official said that many Pakistanis feel that the Obama administration is placing too much of the blame on Pakistan for the lack of progress in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
"The U.S. keeps telling Pakistan to do more, but Pakistan keeps telling the U.S. to do more on certain questions such as speeding up building up of Afghan army, establishing a real process toward reconciliation, and providing Pakistan the means for large scale operations," the official said.
The United States has provided Pakistan with several billions of dollars in military and economic aid to support its war against domestic insurgents. But many in the Pakistani government have criticized what they say characterize as the slow arrival of these funds, which they say are in any case too small to address Pakistan's severe problems.
"It's very simplistic to measure success in amount of assistance provided to Pakistan," one Pakistani official said.
In remarks delivered during the rollout of the strategy review Thursday, President Obama was diplomatic when discussing his administration's ongoing drive to push Pakistan to do more in North Waziristan.
"Increasingly, the Pakistani government recognizes that terrorist networks in its border regions are a threat to all our countries, especially Pakistan. We've welcomed major Pakistani offensives in the tribal regions. We will continue to help strengthen Pakistanis' capacity to root out terrorists," said Obama. "Nevertheless, progress has not come fast enough. So we will continue to insist to Pakistani leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders must be dealt with."
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy acknowledged in an interview the same day that there was more work to be done on the relationship before the Pakistanis were willing to fully support the U.S. and NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.
"Given the ups and downs of our historical relationship with Pakistan, they fear our abandonment," she said. "Their calculus is very much affected by the long-term commitment they feel from us and in working in a strategic partnership."
The White House recognizes that its efforts have fallen short so far. "The bottom line is that Pakistan is a country where we have little influence, little access and little credibility," one of Obama's aides told The New York Times.
The administration's official line, therefore, is to agree with the Pakistani government and express sensitivity to its claim that they simply can't expand their war against extremists at this time.
"We would like them to move tomorrow, we would like them to take out these people tomorrow," said the new U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter. "But we understand they're telling us honestly about the capacity of their military, and when they are able, we are convinced they will move in."
But for many in Washington, the open-ended delay in Pakistan's promise to expand military operations into North Waziristan represents a strategic choice, and is not just a result of the military's operational limitations. But whatever Pakistan's reasons, the delay doesn't inspire confidence that the Obama administration can meet its timelines for making progress in Afghanistan.
"Pakistan, meanwhile, is hedging its bets, supporting proxy actors like the Quetta Shura Taliban and Haqqani Network that might counter Indian interests in Kabul after the United States and its allies eventually withdraw," wrote Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security. "The insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan are one of the two Achilles heels in the NATO strategy."
In a one line tweet, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) came out in support of the New START Treaty with Russia Friday.
"Senator Collins announces support for new START treaty," her twitter feed read Friday morning.
In a statement set to released Friday, Collins said the administration had sufficiently addressed her concerns about Russia's tactical nuclear weapons, which are not part of the New START treaty.
"The New START represents a continued effort to achieve mutual and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons," Collins said. "As the Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, I support the President's commitment to reduce not only the number of strategic nuclear weapons through the New START treaty, but also to reduce, in the future, those weapons that are most vulnerable to theft and misuse - and those are tactical nuclear weapons."
That brings the total number of Republican senators who have clearly stated their support for the treaty to two. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) has been working hard to get the treaty ratified for months.
But there are other signs Friday that more and more Republicans are getting ready to vote in favor of the treaty. Sen. John McCain, in a speech at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Friday morning, said he hoped New START could be debated "next week."
"My colleague Senator Jon Kyl is doing a tremendous job working with the administration to resolve the issues associated with nuclear modernization. I've been focusing my efforts on addressing the key concerns relating to missile defense. And I think we are very close," McCain said.
That matches what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told The Cable last week -- but it does not match Kyl's most recent statements. Kyl continues to say that there isn't enough time to debate and ratify the treaty this month, given that the tax issue remains unresolved.
One scenario that would push consideration of New START until next year is that the treaty could be brought up for a cloture vote, and then fail to win enough votes to close off debate. This could occur if many GOP senators are unhappy with their ability to bring up amendments, for example, leading them to vote against cloture even though they support ratification of the treaty.
This possibility would allow the administration to say they tried and were stifled by intransigent Senate Republicans. However, it would be a pyrrhic victory - wasting floor time during the lame duck session, and leaving the treaty to an uncertain fate during the next session of Congress.
So all eyes are on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the same guy who reluctantly brought the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal to the Senate floor Thursday knowing full well the cloture vote would fail, and Kyl, who the treaty supporters are hoping will finally show his cards.
If Kyl is ultimately determined to not strike an agreement this month, the question is whether the administration's intensive effort to find 8 or 9 GOP votes willing to buck their Senate leadership has paid off. As of right now, they've only got Lugar and Collins for sure.
UPDATE: The other Maine Senator, Olympia Snowe, also came out in support of the treaty Friday, kind of. She said her support for moving the treaty this year was was contingent on allowing "sufficient debate and amendments."
Collins' full statement after the jump:
Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for seven hours in New York in an attempt to strike a deal on extending Israel's partial moratorium on settlement construction. This week, the State Department announced it would no longer pursue a settlement freeze extension as a way to revive the talks.
Why did the agreement fall apart? The United States had offered Israel a host of security incentives, including 20 brand-new fighter planes, for Netanyahu to take back to his cabinet in exchange for a renewed three month settlement moratorium. But President Barack Obama never put that deal in writing, and the Israelis never were clear on its terms or what would happen when the three extra months expired.
"We have determined that a moratorium extension will not at this time provide the best basis for resuming direct negotiations," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday. "We will consult with the parties in the coming days as we move forward. And as we proceed, our position on settlements has not and will not change. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, and we will continue to express that position."
When Clinton takes the microphone on Friday evening at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center event, the world will be watching to see how she charts out the U.S. view on the way forward for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. She's predicted to say by experts close to the administration that that the direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians will formally pause, and that the United States will begin "parallel talks" with each side separately.
There is a slight difference between the "parallel" talks and the "proximity" talks that preceded the "direct" talks, which started in September with great fanfare. In the "proximity" talks, the two sides were in close proximity and the U.S. mediator shuttled back and forth between the parties. In "parallel" talks, the U.S. meetings with the two sides could be far apart in both time and geography.
But Clinton is expected to argue that the parallel talks are the best way to get back to direct talks, which the United States still believes are the only way to reach a negotiated two-state solution. She is not expected to spell out exactly how long the "parallel" talks could last.
Some experts see the shift as an overdue recognition by the Obama administration that their focus on the settlement issue was wrongheaded, as was their commitment to extending the direct talks, no matter the cost.
"Their actions are an admission that the route they were on was not the right one," said Rob Malley, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group. "The U.S. administration reached the conclusion they couldn't get the deal [with the Israelis] and even if they got it, it wasn't clear the Palestinians would accept it. And even if they accepted it, wasn't clear what would happen after 90 days expired except that there could be another crisis."
Crowley acknowledged that the negotiations over the proposed 3-month extension of the settlement moratorium became too much of the focus of negotiations.
"We thought that this had, in a sense, become an end in itself rather than a means to an end," Crowley acknowledged. "We're going to focus on the substance and to try to begin to make progress on the core issues themselves. And we think that will create the kind of momentum that we need to see - to get to sustained and meaningful negotiations."
Over the last month, the Israelis had intense discussions with U.S. officials about the specifics of the offer to extend the settlement moratorium, but the negotiations never came to fruition. For example, regarding the 20 F-35 fighter jets the Obama administration was offering as a sweetener, the Israelis wanted to know how the United States could promise the fighters without Congressional approval. They also had further questions about the offer: Who would pay for the planes? When would they be delivered? Could the Obama administration even promise F-35 planes, considering they don't yet exist and are years behind schedule?
More broadly, the United States never agreed to Netanyahu's demand that this would be the very last time the Israelis would be asked to extend the settlement moratorium. Moreover, administration officials could not assure Israel that the 90 days would yield progress toward a peace deal. The Palestinians would just wait out the three months, the Israelis predicted.
"We felt uncomfortable with the premise of it," one Israeli official told The Cable, "It would not necessarily guarantee that after three months time we would make any headway with the Palestinians, so we in three months would be in the same situation we are today."
And so the negotiations fizzled. They were snuffed out when Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Israeli official closest to the Obama team, publicly declared the direct talks over because, as he put it, the United States was "very busy with North Korea and the WikiLeaks releases."
Barak is headed to Washington Friday, where he will attend the Saban Center event and meet with Clinton on Friday and Defense Secretary Robert Gates next Monday. Israeli negotiator Isaac Molcho is also in town with his team. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is also speaking at the Saban event, and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat will be in Washington with his team to meet with Obama administration officials. Special Envoy George Mitchell will travel to the region next week.
The Israeli line is that end of the neogtiations over settlements is a good thing, because it will force the Palestinians to choose to either come back to the table without what Israel calls "preconditions," such as a settlement freeze.
"It's probably better to redefine the playing rules and the Palestinians are going to have to back down from their precondition," the Israeli official said. "They can't just wait for the Americans to deliver the Israelis on a plate."
But the Palestinians view the failure of the U.S.-Israeli negotiations as just one more sign that the Israelis will never meet their demand to stop building in disputed areas while talks are ongoing. They also see the failure to convince Israel to agree to a settlement freeze as yet another sign the Obama administration isn't willing to use sufficient leverage over Israel to advance the peace process.
"Although the U.S. administration may have their own reasons, the fact that they have backed down [from insisting on a moratorium extension], an objective they set for themselves a year and a half ago, is really of a great concern to us," said the head of the PLO mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat in an interview. "One wonders in the future if they will be able to get Israel to comply with international law to reach a conclusion to the process."
In the most favorable analysis, by taking settlements off the table, the Obama administration can now come up with new and creative ways to get both parties back to the negotiating table -- without constantly looking at the clock.
"We have removed self imposed obstacles by agreeing that we will give up on the settlement freeze and by removing the requirement for direct talks," said Malley.
But that still leaves all sides quite far away from real, sustainable progress towards peace.
"All of the other obstacles remain," Malley added. "The lack of trust and the huge gaps between the two sides, the divided Palestinians, the dysfunctional Israelis, the polarization of the region, the damaged credibility of the U.S... all those remain."
The State Department confirmed that it is engaged in an intensive effort to assist over three dozen embassies in Washington who are all facing the possible closing of their U.S. bank accounts due to a growing movement by several major banks to drop embassies from their rolls.
The embassy of Angola in Washington was the first foreign embassy to have all of its U.S. bank accounts closed against its will. Bank of America closed all five of its accounts Nov. 9, after warning the Angolans of the decision through an unsigned letter only a week before with no explanation whatsoever, according to an Angolan diplomat speaking with The Cable. The State Department is working furiously to resolve the issue -- but if it doesn't succeed, the Angolan government is considering taking action against U.S. diplomats and businesses in Angola in retribution.
The Angolans have been imploring the State Department to help them sort through the problem, and as of Nov. 9 can no longer conduct regular embassy business, such as paying bills and salaries. They even cancelled their planned Nov. 16 event celebrating the 35th anniversary of their country's independence. The State and Treasury Departments have been trying to help, but have taken the position that the U.S. government has no ability to force American banks to do business with the Angolan government.
"It's not just an Africa issue, it's an issue with missions from around the world," said a State Department official, speaking to The Cable on background. "We're aware that some banks are looking to reduce their involvement with this type of business… But the U.S. government does not control U.S. banks. We cannot require them to maintain accounts with any client."
The official said that up to 37 embassies in Washington could soon face a similar situation, as various banks are moving to get rid of their accounts. Seventeen of those embassies represent countries in Africa. The official declined to identify the names of the other foreign embassies affected or the names of other U.S. banks moving to drop embassy business.
The Angolans, frustrated and running out of options, are considering reciprocity measures, such as closing the bank accounts of the U.S. embassy in Angola, refusing to receive the credentials of incoming U.S. Ambassador Christopher McMullen, or closing the banks accounts of U.S. companies in Angola, such as Chevron, Exxon, BP, and Boeing, according to a source in the American business community with interests in Angola and who is closely monitoring the crisis.
"We don't know why it is happening," the Angolan diplomat said. "In the context of the Vienna Convention, we hope the American administration is going to take measures for us to operate here. The administration says that Angola is a strategic partner to the U.S., so we would like at least to be treated as a strategic partner… A diplomatic mission cannot operate anywhere without a bank account."
Article 25 of the Vienna Convention of 1961 on Diplomatic Relations states, "The receiving State shall accord full facilities for the performance of the functions of the mission."
Why are the banks running away from embassy business? According to the State Department official, several banks, including Bank of America, are calculating that the effort spent making sure government accounts are not being abused for money laundering purposes, sometimes with suspected links to terrorism, is becoming too complicated and costly to justify keeping the accounts.
"Some banks feel it's just not worth their time anymore, it's a cost of business they don't want to deal with," the State Department official said.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson has had several conversations with Angolan officials about the matter and briefed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the crisis last week. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Treasury Daniel Glaser met with Angolan Ambassador Josefina Diakité twice before she was called back to the Angolan capital of Luanda for consultations on Nov. 16.
"The Department of State seriously regrets the inconveniences -- in some cases, very serious inconveniences -- that African embassies and others have been subjected to as a result of actions by a number of American commercial banks," Carson said in an interview Nov. 15.
The official acknowledged that the discussion of the issue inside the State Department "reaches all the way to the top," and said he was hopeful that a new bank had been found to handle the funds of the Angolan embassy, although nothing was final.
The Angolans are certainly hoping the State Department can come to their rescue. "Both countries are interested in having bilateral relations. I hope that the two governments can solve the problem," the Angolan diplomat said.
Bank of America's decision to close the Angolan embassy's accounts came only three months after their accounts with another bank, HSBC USA, were dropped as well. Our sources say the action is partly related to a February report issued by the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations, led by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), which cited Angola "for an ongoing corruption problem, weak anti-money laundering (AML) controls, and a cash-intensive banking system."
Bank of America spokesman Jefferson George told The Cable, "Due to confidentiality, we can't comment on specific client relationships. In general, Bank of America Merrill Lynch is actively committed to providing banking services for the diplomatic community. This includes countries in Africa, where we have a number of clients."
Incoming House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) isn't waiting until the new Congress comes into session to oppose some of the Obama administration's foreign policy positions. On Wednesday, she called for the White House to impose new sanctions on North Korea in light of a new report on Pyongyang's arms proliferation.
The U.N. Security Council released a report today that accuses North Korea of supplying ballistic missile and nuclear technology to Syria, Iran, and Burma. Authored by the so-called "Panel of Experts," which includes experts from U.S., the U.K., China, France, Japan, Russia and South Korea. The report was held up for months due to Chinese opposition to its release. The report claims that Pyongyang is flouting recent U.N. Security Council resolutions forbidding it from engaging in weapons proliferation.
"Evidence... indicates that the DPRK has continued to provide missiles, components, and technology to certain countries including Iran and Syria since the imposition of these measures," the report states. "The Panel of Experts is also looking into suspicious activity in Myanmar..."
That's enough for Ros-Lehtinen to call for the administration to back off its effort to reach out to North Korea.
"Instead of continuing its failed strategy of seeking to engage the regime in endless negotiation, the administration must ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang. At the upcoming G-20 summit in Seoul, President Obama must persuade the heads of state to call for the imposition of new and effective U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korea," Ros-Lehtinen said.
"In addition, the U.S. and other responsible nations must use every means at their disposal to apply pressure on Pyongyang, the first step being to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism."
The State Department has made it clear that weapons transfers alone don't meet the legal threshold for relisting a country as a state sponsor of terrorism. And there's no sign the Obama administration's engagement with North Korea is picking up steam, considering that Pyongyang refuses to reaffirm the commitment to denuclearization it agreed to in 2007.
But Ros-Lehtinen is making it clear that she will be an aggressive critic of the administration's foreign policy positions as chairwoman, much as she was when she was ranking Republican on the committee. And she's making it clear that she's not afraid to ramp up the rhetoric to do it.
"This forthcoming report should be a wake-up call for the U.S. and other responsible nations," she said. "We must act quickly and firmly to stop North Korea's proliferation before it ends up costing American lives and those of our allies."
The White House has begun its next comprehensive review of the war in Afghanistan. But don't expect it to resolve the political struggle over the course of the war: The review won't examine policy options and won't weigh in on how the war effort should be modified going forward.
The National Security Staff began what they are calling the "annual Afghanistan-Pakistan review" two weeks ago and is now in the "data collection" phase, a senior Obama administration official told reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon. NSS staff went on a 12-day trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Brussels recently to gather data for the review, and reports from various agencies and outposts are due this week. When that step is completed, the second phase of the review will begin. In early December, the White House plans to move to the third and final phase, which will be about organizing its findings. Some of those findings will be shared with Capitol Hill and perhaps the public in the second half of December or early January.
But unlike the last administration Afghanistan policy review, which resulted in Obama's troop surge decision last March, this review team is being told not to make policy recommendations. That work will be left to the National Security Staff (the new name for the National Security Council) to deal with after the review is completed.
"The president defined our task, and that is simply that we are to assess how this approach is working," the official said. "He specified that this is a diagnostic look at the strategy. It is not, on the other hand, prescriptive. That is, we are not in the business of formulating policy alternatives or different courses of action or so forth."
The interagency team will focus on two questions in conducting the review. First: Is the strategy on the right path, and are the resources committed producing the desired results? Secondly, is the pace of those results sufficient to match the timelines that Obama set during his March speech on the war effort?
"Our bywords are ‘path' and ‘pace,'" the official said.
Neither the exact findings of the review, nor details of the metrics used by the administration to measure progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan, will be released to the public. But when pressed, the official described the broad categories of metrics the administration is utilizing.
There are eight general categories of metrics, three focusing on Afghanistan, three focusing on Pakistan, and two focusing on the overall counterterrorism effort, the official said. The sub-metrics will gauge a number of factors, including trends in violence, the degree to which local areas are controlled by the Afghan government , and the quality and quantity of Afghan security forces.
The question of whether Pakistan is making progress on combating insurgents operating inside its borders is a "very fundamental underlying question for the review," the official said. "We do not dispute that there are still safe havens in Pakistan which are fundamentally part of the equation for our campaign in Afghanistan and getting at those safe havens is fundamental to our approach."
The official defended the administration's decision to keep most of the details of the metrics as well as the details of the review and its conclusions out of the public view.
"This is designed to be an inside the administration perspective," the official said. "There will some sharing of findings at the end of the process, but there's no intent now to share internal metrics and measurements, because since we're in an active conflict zone, the degree to which we share these kinds of details could put lives at risk and jeopardize the kind of progress we're trying to generate."
At the end of the review process, the review will compile a list of policy issues that need to be addressed and tee those up for the National Security Staff to deal with in the first six months in 2011. But don't expect the White House to voluntarily share the details of those discussions either, the official warned.
"There's a good deal that we don't intend to make public."
More than $1 billion of aid to earthquake-torn Haiti still has not reached the island nation, but that's not the fault of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) -- despite the recent charge leveled against the conservative senator by the Daily Show's Jon Stewart. Rather, the complicated State Department-Congressional appropriations process is to blame for the delay.
On Sept. 30, Stewart took Coburn to task for his hold on the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act of 2010, a pending bill that would set five years' worth of authorizations (how Congress wants to see the money spent) for Haiti reconstruction and relief funding. Coburn wants to see Congress find savings in other parts of the State Department to pay for $500 million for Haiti next year, in fiscal 2011. Stewart's rant was based on this Sept. 28. AP article.
Referencing that, Stewart called Coburn an "international a**hole of mystery" and continued: "So for any Haitian who right now lives on top of a pile of rubble washing their clothes in their own urine bucket, while Sean Penn gives your kids cigarettes while regaling you with Fast Times at Ridgemont High anecdotes, hang in there. Cause we need to sort all this out so you won't have to fill out duplicate forms. You're welcome!"
The problem is that Coburn's hold is not responsible for delaying the $1.15 billion Congress already appropriated in late July to help Haiti. That bill, which is totally separate from the one Coburn is holding up, was the supplemental appropriations act signed by President Obama on July 29. Authorization bills, like the one that Coburn objects to, are useful for setting out Congressional direction on how money should be spend, but aren't strictly necessary to the disbursement of the funds. The appropriations bills are the ones that actually spend the money.
Even the State Department acknowledges that Coburn is not responsible for the delay in this tranche of funds for Haiti.
"Senator Coburn's hold is not related to the $1.15 billion pledge made by the administration in March," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Cable. He explained that the State Department and Congress are still working on how exactly to spend the money, totally apart from Coburn's hold on the separate authorization bill.
State was given 45 days from July 29 to submit a "spend plan" for the Haiti money, after which Congress had two weeks to submit questions about its plan. Today, Coburn posted the State Department's spending plan for Haiti, along with its transmittal letter, which shows that it was given to Congress Sept 20. That's 52 days after the bill was signed, more than the 45 allowed -- but still not bad for government work.
Now, State and the relevant congressional committees are finishing up their work on the spend plan and the State Department should start actually giving out the money soon, Crowley said.
"We continue to answer questions and address issues that members of Congress have raised, but we will soon be obligating those funds on the ground in high impact ways to help the people of Haiti build back better," Crowley said.
He also pointed out that Congress had already put $300 million on the ground in Haiti while the process to release this $1.15 billion progressed.
Coburn also posted USAID's fact sheet on humanitarian assistance to Haiti, which shows that over $1.1 billion has already been spent, although that was for emergency relief, not the longer term recovery and reconstruction assistance that is now being sought.
Overall, Crowley argues, "there has been no undue delay by the administration in releasing the $1.15 billion, given the notification requirements legislators included in the supplemental legislation."
Regardless, whether you are a Haitian or a late-night comedian wondering why the money hasn't flowed yet, in this instance, you should direct your questions to the State Department and Congress, not Tom Coburn.
"Coburn may be an a**hole when it comes to holding up bills, but he's not the bad guy here," said one Senate aide. "The a**hole here is the bureaucratic process... and Jon Stewart."
President Obama will unveil his administration's new overarching strategy on global development Wednesday in a speech at the United Nations.
"Today, I am announcing our new U.S. Global Development Policy -- the first of its kind by an American administration," Obama will say, according to prepared remarks. "It's rooted in America's enduring commitment to the dignity and potential of every human being. And it outlines our new approach and the new thinking that will guide our overall development efforts."
The president's speech will place global development in the context of his National Security Strategy released in May, which emphasizes the interconnected relationship of security, economics, trade, and health.
"My national security strategy recognizes development as not only a moral imperative, but a strategic and economic imperative," Obama will say. "We've reengaged with multilateral development institutions. And we're rebuilding the United States Agency for International Development as the world's premier development agency. In short, we're making sure that the United States will be a global leader in international development in the 21st century."
The White House was busy laying the groundwork in advance of the president's speech, touting the highlights of what it calls the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development (PPD). A fact sheet provided to reporters laid out the basic ideas of the U.S. strategy, which includes a focus on sustainable outcomes, placing a premium on economic growth, using technological advances to their maximum advantage, being more selective about where to focus efforts, and holding all projects accountable for results.
The White House will not release the full text of this initiative, which was previously known as the Presidential Study Directive on Global Development (PSD-7).
On some specific items of contention, the White House has decided that USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah will not have a permanent seat on the National Security Council, as many in the development community wanted. However, he will be invited to attend its meetings when issues affecting his work are being discussed.
An executive-level Development Policy Committee will be created to oversee all interagency development policy efforts, as was outlined in a leaked copy of a previous draft of the new policy. There will also be a mandated once-every-four-years review of global development strategy, which will be sent to the president.
Obama announced the new policy during the U.N.'s conference on the Millennium Development Goals. "The real significance here is the fact that the President chose to unveil this at the U.N. and in the context of the MDGs," said Peter Yeo, vice president for public policy at the U.N. Foundation. "[I]t shows how closely the administration wants to work with the U.N. and U.N. agencies in implementing them."
Development community leaders reacted to the new policy with cautious optimism and a hope that implementation would go as planned.
"President Obama has delivered a big victory for the world's poor, our national interests, and the movement to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective," said George Ingram, a former senior official at USAID and current co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network. "Now the tough task of implementation begins, and we are ready to work with the Administration to ensure that key reform principles are applied and codified in law, because that is the real way to make this policy one of the President's great legacies."
Deputy National Security Advisor for international economics Michael Froman, in a Friday conference call with reporters, defended the White House's decision not to release the entire PPD. "It's general policy that we can release a detailed summary of it, but as I understand it the policy is not to release the PPD themselves," he said.
Development community leaders were nonetheless disappointed.
"We understand that NSC documents like this aren't normally released in full, but there are pitfalls in this approach," said Greg Adams, director of aid effectiveness at Oxfam America. "The Administration should make sure that enough gets out to not only provide the American people with a clear rationale for the new approach, but also make sure that our partners around the world understand how we plan to change the way we work with them."
On a Thursday conference call with development community leaders to preview the release, one senior administration official mentioned your humble Cable guy while requesting anonymity and asking the participants to hold the information close.
"I know that with this group it's a little unusual to do calls on background and embargoed... not that I think anybody on this line has ever talked to Josh Rogin," the official said.
Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, both recently returned from touring parts of northern Pakistan devastated by widespread flooding, pledged to increase U.S. government aid to the region.
"I've seen a lot of disasters since I entered the government a long time ago... but what I've never seen before, and what I doubt anyone has ever seen it before, is the way millions of people are spread out across an area the size of Italy, clinging to dykes, living outside the refugee camps, waiting for the water to recede so they can go home," Holbrooke said on a conference call Monday morning. "But there are no homes to return to."
The United States will increase its commitment by $76 million, the State Department announced, bringing its assistance package to $345 million. The United Nations called for $2 billion in aid relief for Pakistan over the weekend, on top of their original $459 million appeal, which is now 80 percent funded.
The new U.S. assistance will be spent immediately on food aid. "There continues to be significant unmet needs in basic food assistance," Shah said, noting that Pakistani leaders had told him that 50 percent of immediate food needs were not being satisfied.
The money will not come out of the funds set aside as part of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Pakistan aid bill. $60 million of that legislation's $1.5 billion commitment for this fiscal year have already been diverted to flood-related disaster assistance, and more will likely be reprogrammed in that direction as the response continues. "The amount and details and so on has to be decided on a case to case basis in consultation with the Congress," Holbrooke said.
But Holbrooke made clear that the United States and the international community is not committing to rebuilding Pakistan alone over the long term and the Pakistani government would have to take the lead.
"The international community is not going to be able to pick up the full costs of the reconstruction phase, the tens of billions of dollars. The international community has been quite generous already," Holbrooke said.
Despite his best efforts, Holbrooke didn't completely avoid becoming embroiled in media controversies during his latest trip to Pakistan. The U.S. Embassy had to deny that Holbrooke made a statement that the United States would not "accept slackness" from the Pakistani military in the war on terror.
Also, Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported that Holbrooke told reporters in Pakistan that he believed that Pakistan's civilian leadership would survive the latest crisis, saying, "I don't see evidence that the government is drowning."
Nevertheless, Holbrooke sounded pessimistic about the ability of Pakistan to handle the fallout from the flood disaster on its own. When asked Monday if the government in Islamabad would ever have enough money to dig themselves out of the crisis, Holbrooke said, "Nobody knows... probably not."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.