Western and Iranian negotiators were putting the finishing touches on a far-reaching nuclear deal. Then, at virtually the last minute, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius joined in the talks. It didn't take long for the negotiations to unravel -- and for Fabius to publicly declare this round of the talks to be over.
It wasn't the answer U.S., European or Iranian teams had been expecting. One Western official said Paris hadn't been particularly involved in the painstaking negotiations that had taken place in the run-up to this weekend's talks in Geneva. "The French were barely involved in this," one Western diplomat said. "They didn't get looped in until a few days ago."
Yet the French response shouldn't have been a total surprise. The socialist government of French President François Hollande has adopted a muscular foreign policy that has put it to the right of the Obama administration on Libya, Mali, Syria and now Iran. Along the way, it has also become Israel's primary European ally and -- after the U.S. -- arguably its closest friend in the world.
Fabius, echoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is said to have had two serious concerns with the deal. First, the agreement failed to prevent Tehran from continuing construction on its nuclear reactor at Arak. Once the facility is operational, a key part of Iran's nuclear program would be immune to airstrikes because bombing the plant would lead to massive, deadly, radiation leaks. Fabius was also upset that the deal didn't require Iran to reduce its stockpiles of 20% enriched uranium, which is approaching weapons-grade. The Hollande government, Fabius told French radio, would not be part of a "fool's game."
Publicly, Secretary of State John Kerry refused to say anything critical about the French, emphasizing instead that Iran and the so-called "P5+1" had made substantial headway towards a deal and would continue the talks later this month. "I’d say a number of nations – not just the French, but ourselves and others – wanted to make sure that we had the tough language necessary," Kerry said on the Meet the Press. In the French media, there were reports that the big powers were united -- and that it was Iranian negotiators who ultimately balked at making a deal in Geneva. Privately, though, many diplomats were fuming at the French.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington today on a two-week trip that includes a stop in Israel, a stop in Egypt, and a new effort to head off a possible new round of tensions with Palestinian leaders.
Clinton's travel will take her to France, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Egypt and Israel. The first item on Clinton's international agenda is Syria, and Clinton will attend the Friday meeting in Paris of the Friends of Syria group, the U.S.- and Turkey-led diplomatic initiative that is meant to coordinate international action to resolve the Syrian crisis.
Clinton isn't expected to make any significant changes in the U.S. position on Syria, which is still, in a nutshell, to avoid direct intervention, look the other way while Gulf Arab states arms the opposition, and work with Russia to facilitate a Yemen-like political transition.
"[T]he secretary will consult with her colleagues on steps to increase pressure on the Assad regime and to support UN-Arab League Special Envoy Annan's efforts to end the violence and facilitate a political transition to a post-Assad Syria," read a statement sent out by the State Department today.
While she's in Paris, Clinton will also meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, "to discuss both parties' efforts to pursue a dialogue and build on President Abbas' exchange of letters with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu," the State Department said.
Reuters reported that reported that Clinton requested the meeting and will also press Abbas not to pursue a new United Nations resolution that condemns settlements in "occupied" territories. Expectations on the Palestinian side for any progress in Paris are low, according to Reuters.
On the Israeli side, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told an audience last week at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival that a new unilateral settlement freeze was not likely. "The Palestinians under Abu Mazen refused once and again to get into the room without a precondition... I believe that most of the responsibility is on their shoulders," he said.
The U.S. and Palestinian leaderships have also been at loggerheads over the Palestinian drive to seek membership in U.N. bodies, such as UNESCO. U.S. law required the end of all American contributions to UNESCO after that body admitted Palestine as a member earlier this year.
On July 8, Clinton will go on to Tokyo to attend an international conference on the future of Afghanistan, a follow-up to last December's conference in Bonn, Germany. In Tokyo, Clinton will talk about the "transformation decade" in Afghanistan, which she will say begins in 2015, after the bulk of U.S. and international forces leave that country.
"The Afghan Government in turn will lay out its plan for economic reform and continued steps toward good governance," the State Department said in its release.
The next day Clinton will go to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to speak to a meeting of the Governing Board of the Community of Democracies, an informal multilateral coalition of countries that promotes democratic values,, speak at a women's conference, and meet with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj and Prime Minister Sükhbaataryn Batbold.
On July 10 Clinton moves on to Hanoi for a day of meetings with government and business leaders before traveling to Vientiane, Laos, on July 11. Her stop in Laos will mark the first visit to that country -- one of the world's last avowedly communist states -- by a U.S. Secretary of State in 57 years and Clinton will meet with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong.
After her brief stop in Laos, Clinton will arrive late in the day July 11 in Cambodia. While there, she will participate in three major conferences: the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting, and the U.S.-ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference. Tensions between China and its neighbors over maritime disputes is sure to be high on the agenda.
After two days in Phnom Penh, Clinton will go to the city of Siem Reap on July 14 to meet with business leaders and deliver the keynote address at the Lower Mekong Initiative Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Dialogue. The Lower Mekong Initiative is a development-focused forum that joins the U.S. with several southeast Asian nations.
The next day it's off to Cairo, where Clinton is reported to have a meeting scheduled with the new President Mohamed Morsy. She will stay in Egypt until July 16, and will meet with senior government officials, civil society, and business leaders, and inaugurate the U.S. consulate in Alexandria.
The last stop on Clinton's tour is Israel, where she will be meeting with as yet undisclosed Israeli leaders "to discuss peace efforts and a range of regional and bilateral issues of mutual concern," the State Department said.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is also expected to travel to Israel to meet with leaders there sometime this summer.
In what seems like a deliberate ploy to escape the cold autumn weather gripping Washington, President Barack Obama will leave for Cannes on Wednesday for the G-20 summit and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is off to Istanbul for an international meeting on Afghanistan.
Upon arriving in Cannes on Thursday morning, Obama will hold bilateral meetings with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He will then meet with the "L-20," an elected group of labor leaders from the G-20 countries. On Thursday afternoon, the formal G-20 schedule commences.
Obama will meet on Friday with the newly reelected Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, followed by a press conference, and then perhaps some more one-on-one time with Sarkozy. Other bilateral meetings could pop up, according to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.
"The G-20 agenda is critical to growing our economy here back at home, to strengthening the recovery, to increase exports and to create jobs," NSC Senior Director for International Economics Mike Froman told reporters on Monday morning. "In Cannes, we expect the eurozone to be the primary focus of discussion, but in addition, the leaders will focus on mechanisms that have been put in place to ensure strong, balanced and sustainable growth."
Froman said other topics at the G-20 summit will include financial regulatory reform and how to keep momentum going on G-20 priorities, such as security and infrastructure development, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, fighting corruption, and strengthening the multilateral trading system.
"[T]here is growing agreement around the world that the focus at Cannes needs to be on growth," said Treasury Undersecretary Lael Brainard. "President Obama remains intensely focused on putting Americans back to work. Recovery in the U.S. remains fragile and still too vulnerable to disruption beyond our shores."
Brainard called the new European plan to stave off financial collapse "significant" but declined to comment on whether or not the administration has confidence that Europe's the $1.4 trillion firewall the Obama administration is recommending will actually be implemented. The officials didn't comment directly on the idea of China bailing out Europe, but they didn't seem thrilled about the prospect, either.
So the concept that China and other emerging economies are part of this discussion, that they will be there, along with ourselves and other industrialized countries, speaking with the Europeans, talking about the elaboration and the implementation of their plan, and expressing unity and support of what the Europeans are doing, we think is very much appropriate," Froman said.
Brainard also implied -- but did not say outright -- that the United States was not supportive of the European idea of imposing a tax on all trades of stocks and bonds. She talked about the Obama administration's financial responsibility fee as the preferred approach.
"We think that the financial responsibility fee, which is on the liabilities of the largest financial institutions, is well-targeted to make those institutions that are bearing greater risk pay more. It is better targeted to prevent evasion. And the IMF went through a similar assessment exercise and came, frankly, to a pretty similar conclusion," she said.
Meanwhile, Clinton leaves Monday night for London to attend a conference on cyber security policy. On Wednesday, Clinton will participate in an international conference in Istanbul on the way forward in Afghanistan. The conference is part of the lead up to the Bonn conference on Afghanistan scheduled for Dec. 5.
"Istanbul is seen as an opportunity for Afghanistan's neighbors to reiterate their commitment to a stable, secure, economically viable Afghanistan and to supporting Afghan-led reconciliation, the transition to Afghan security leadership, and then a shared regional economic vision," a senior administration official told reporters on Monday. "It's a gathering of regional foreign ministers. The U.S. is actually there just as a supporter, which is critical."
The Bonn conference is expected to include 85 countries and 15 international organizations, and is being held to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Bonn Agreement in December 2001, which was convened to establish an interim government for ruling Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion.
As for Wednesday's conference in Istanbul, the opening session will feature remarks from Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul. Clinton will make remarks on Wednesday afternoon after lunch.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar will also be at the conference, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari will be in town for a U.S.-Afghan-Pakistani trilateral meeting as well. The United States has been pressing the Pakistani government to cut ties with the Haqqani network, but there's no progress to report just yet.
"The secretary, I think, was quite clear that we all need to see visible signs of progress as a matter of some urgency in days and weeks, as she noted, as opposed to months and years," the senior administration official said.
President Barack Obama has touted his emphasis on multilateralism in the U.S. military intervention in Libya, but, for political, operational, and legal reasons, Obama's "coalition of the willing" is smaller than any major multilateral operation since the end of the Cold War.
The Cable compiled a chart listing all the countries that contributed at least some military assets to the five major military operations in which the United States participated in a coalition during the last 20 years: the 1991 Gulf War (32 countries participating), the 1995 Bosnia mission (24 countries), the 1999 Kosovo mission (19 countries), the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan (48 countries), and the 2003 invasion of Iraq (40 countries), at the height of the size of each coalition. As of today, only 15 countries, including the United States, have committed to providing a military contribution to the Libya war.
Experts quickly point out that all of these military interventions happened in different contexts. However, they added that the reason Obama's Libya war coalition has less international involvement than all the others was also due to his administration's behavior in the lead-up to the war, its approach to multilateralism, the speed with which it was put together, and the justifications for the war itself.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that the administration's effort to build the coalition was hampered by its stated desire to hand off the leadership of the Libya intervention to NATO.
"[I]f you [focus on the handoff], you don't deserve a lot of credit for leadership," he said. "Obama in his deference to [getting out of the lead] has not only wanted other countries to do as much as they could, he has essentially forgone his responsibility to build the coalition."
The Libya mission is, by definition, smaller in scale than Iraq or Afghanistan; and a no-fly zone doesn't require as many countries as a full-on invasion, O'Hanlon pointed out. However, the relatively few Arab countries contributing military assets could pose a problem for the mission's legitimacy.
Operation Odyssey Dawn now has three Muslim countries with actual military contributions --Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE. "The limits of Arab support are palpable and could be a growing concern in the days and weeks ahead," O'Hanlon said.
While the Libya intervention was endorsed by the Arab League, the endorsement doesn't actually require any Arab countries to contribute materially to the effort, said David Bosco, assistant professor at American University and author of FP's blog The Multilateralist.
Obama put a priority on "formal multilateralism," as opposed to "operational multilateralism," concentrating on getting international political bodies to endorse the Libya attack before he focused on getting individual countries to pledge actual military contributions, Bosco said. That's why the administration, primarily the State Department, is working the phones now to ask countries such as the UAE to chip in a few planes here and there.
"At a certain point the administration is going to have to decide whether just to say this is a coalition of willing countries," said Bosco. "That's not the end of the world."
Bosco also said Obama was practicing "a la carte multilateralism" by trumpeting the endorsement of certain regional international organizations, such as the Arab League, while dismissing the opinions of other groups, such as the African Union, which strongly opposed the intervention.
"There's a legitimacy shopping exercise that's going on here," Bosco said.
Wayne White, a former senior State Department intelligence official now with the Middle East Institute, noted that another problem with the Obama administration's efforts to build a coalition was its own apparent lack of enthusiasm about the war. It was keenly aware of the war-weary U.S. populace, concerned about the burden of its strategic commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unsure how this would play out in an extremely competitive and divisive election next year, White said.
"They were profoundly conflicted internally whether to do this, let alone to lead, which is quite unique," he said.
Obama administration officials have argued that the speed of international action on Libya was much faster than any previous intervention, and that the process was driven by the need to avert a potentially imminent humanitarian disaster.
"I know that the nightly news cannot cover a humanitarian crisis that thankfully did not happen, but it is important to remember that many, many Libyans are safer today because the international community took action," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.
Two senior administration officials held a late evening conference call with reporters Thursday night to explain how NATO agreed to take over military operations in Libya and why the U.S. and NATO leadership seem to be giving totally conflicting messages on whether NATO is taking over political control of the war as well:
Following two days of intensive discussions in Brussels, NATO has agreed to support -- but not command -- operations in Libya. Meanwhile, France has proposed a high-level international "political steering committee" to actually run the war. But does the Obama administration support that idea?
"NATO has now decided to launch an operation to enforce the arms embargo against Libya," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement from Brussels on Tuesday evening. He said U.S. Admiral James Stavridis was activating NATO ships and aircraft to "monitor, report and, if needed, interdict vessels suspected of carrying illegal arms or mercenaries."
NATO has also "completed plans to help enforce the no-fly zone" that will be brought into force "if needed, in a clearly defined manner," to support the effort to protect the Libyan people," Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen didn't say whether NATO would perform the command-and-control function of the no-fly zone, something that Turkey has objected to because the "all necessary measures" language of Security Council Resolution 1973 includes the bombing of Libya. France objected to NATO being in command of the war operations on a day-to-day basis and has now proposed a new "political steering committee," made up of foreign ministers from the United States, European, and Arab states, to oversee the war.
A French diplomat told The Cable that the details of the proposal would be worked out over the next few days. "It was always understood that there would be two stages of operations. The one that started on Saturday and a second phase in which NATO would play a role," the French diplomat said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé announced on Tuesday that the British are in agreement with the proposal but the French government has not said anything about the position of the Obama administration.
So is the Obama administration on board? White House spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to a request for comment on the French proposal. Obama spoke with Sarkozy Tuesday and "the two Presidents agreed on the means of using NATO's command structures to support the coalition," the French government said in a read out.
It's not clear how the French steering committee would be in operational control of the war, but the proposal includes that the committee would be in charge of the "strategic decisions" involving military action, the diplomat said.
If enacted, the proposal would allow President Barack Obama to fulfill his pledge to transfer leadership of the war out of American hands within "a matter of days," as he said Monday.
The French position is that the steering committee idea would allow NATO to bring its military capabilities to bear without putting an exclusively Western label on the military intervention. Qaddafi has called the campaign a "colonial crusade" by western nations.
"The only constraint is that we need to keep the Arabs involved," the French diplomat said. "In order to do that we need to use NATO capabilities and we need to [provide so that] Arab countries stay involved."
The NATO meetings on Monday were contentious. The French and German representatives reportedly stormed out of the meeting, albeit for very different reasons. France was upset at Rasmussen for openly criticizing France in the meeting and questioning their reliability as an ally. Germany is opposed to the military intervention altogether.
"We do not want to be sucked into a position of eventually seeing German soldiers fighting in Libya," Germany's foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said.
"There was confusion yesterday but we are safely now going in the right direction," the French diplomat reported.
Our sources also report that Washington has made it clear that they want to see the transfer of leadership for the Libya mission leave U.S. hands by the end of the week. Whether the Obama administration and the Defense Department are comfortable with a French led international steering committee making decisions about the actions of U.S. military forces remains to be seen.
President Barack Obama spoke on Monday evening with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the two agreed that NATO should have a command and control role in the Libya war, according to a White House read out of the phone call. But today in Brussels, the French government said it doesn't agree.
"The President and the Prime Minister reaffirmed their support for the full implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, in order to protect the Libyan people," the White House said. "The leaders agreed that this will require a broad-based international effort, including Arab states, to implement and enforce the UN resolutions, based on national contributions and enabled by NATO's unique multinational command and control capabilities to ensure maximum effectiveness."
The Turkish government has been very clear that it does not support NATO-led enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya if the mission goes beyond the U.N.-sanctioned objective of protecting Libyan civilians.
"We do not want Libya to become a second Iraq.... A civilization in Iraq collapsed within eight years. More than a million people were killed there," Turkey's daily Hürriyet newspaper quoted Erdogan as saying on Monday on the way back from Saudi Arabia. "We will not participate with our fighting forces. It is impossible for us to think that our fighters would drop bombs over the Libyan people."
Turkey laid out its position at Tuesday's NATO meeting in Brussels. The Turks are still upset they were not invited to the Paris planning meeting on March 19, the day the air strikes began. Turkey has also taken over as the protecting power of the U.S. in Tripoli, meaning they would be in charge of direct interactions with the Libyan government and responsible for the abandoned U.S. embassy, their government announced on Monday.
Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Tuesday that France now opposes NATO taking over the Libya mission. The French and German representatives reportedly stormed out of the Monday meeting in Brussels over disagreements about NATO's role, albeit for very different reasons. Germany is opposed to the military intervention altogether.
The confusion is causing problems for the rest of the coalition as well. Norway said Tuesday it was "suspending" its promise to use F-16 fighter jets in combat in Libya until the command structure issue was worked out, even though its jets had already arrived at the staging base in Italy.
All of this puts into question the viability of Obama's pledge on Monday that the U.S. will transfer command of the military mission in Libya in "a matter of days."
Adding to the questions over the endgame, Obama and Erdogan also "underscored their shared commitment to the goal of helping provide the Libyan people an opportunity to transform their country, by installing a democratic system that respects the people's will," the White House said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a congressional panel on Thursday morning that the State Department is "suspending our relationship with the existing Libyan embassy" in Washington. Her announcement is only the latest episode in the saga of what is now, essentially, two competing Libyan diplomatic posts in Washington.
On one side of town is Libyan Ambassador Ali Aujali's residence, nestled in the luxurious Kalorama neighborhood where dozens of foreign envoys retire when they go home from a day's work. There was a big celebration at the residence on Feb. 25, when Aujali denounced Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi and with the help of some embassy staff replaced Libya's green Qaddafi-era flag with the red, green, and black pre-Qaddafi flag, which the Libyan opposition has adopted as its standard.
On the other side of town, behind a non-descript door marked "Libyan Liaison Office" inside the Watergate office complex, is the actual Libyan embassy -- a relic of the pre-2006 era when the United States and Libya did not have formal diplomatic relations.
Aujali claimed that the embassy was "under my control" in an interview with Foreign Policy last week. But his assistant, Katie White, told The Cable at that point that Aujali was "working from home" that week and hadn't been to the actual embassy office in a while. White said that the embassy's second in command was running the embassy office, a man named Mr. Fatih, who doesn't speak English. (The spelling of his name cannot be confirmed.)
But Fatih hasn't renounced Qaddafi, so is the embassy office still loyal to the regime? White wouldn't say. So your humble Cable guy went there today to find out.
The Libyan embassy office, which is guarded by uniformed secret service guards and armed private security, shows no indications that there has been any change in Libya whatsoever. A large picture of Qaddafi hangs on the wall in between the green regime flag and the flag of the United States. A stack of copies of Qaddafi's manifesto, known as The Green Book, sits on the table. Embassy officers file in and out, as if going about their regular business.
Eventually, an embassy staffer came past. Gracious but uncomfortable, she said that Fatih was out of the office for a few days on "personal business." Asked who was in charge of the embassy, Aujali or Fatih, she responded, "It's very confusing, even to us."
"It's like a classroom, if the professor is away the assistant is in charge," she continued, trying to explain that both Ali and Fatih were still involved in the embassy's management. But didn't the fact that one of them had rejected Qaddafi and one had not affect how the post functions? So who was in charge of the Libyan embassy and its staff?
"Honestly, I don't want to know," she said.
The State Department has only added to the confusion over who represents Libya in Washington. After Aujali denounced Qaddafi, the State Department initially transferred recognition to whoever was left at the Qaddafi-loyal embassy office.
On March 1, the same day protesters unsuccessfully struggled to physically tear down the Qaddafi flag from the embassy office, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Aujali "no longer represents Libya's interests in the United States."
Two days later, The Cable reported that the State Department had changed its mind and now considered Aujali as Libya's "chief of mission" in Washington and, as such, would deal with him directly. Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa had sent the State Department a fax telling them not to deal with Aujali, but State decided to ignore the communiqué because they were not able "verify its authenticity," a State Department official told The Cable.
That explanation was viewed by the State Department press corps as being too clever by half. Couldn't State just call Musa and confirm the fax? Was there really a suspicion that the fax could have been a fake? State was able to avoid that question: Musa stopped returning their calls.
But on March 7, Crowley confirmed that Kusa had called Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman on March 4 to talk about the situation in Libya. As for the status of the Libyan embassy in Washington, it never came up.
"Musa Kusa called to say hello, and he did not bring up the status of the ambassador. Neither did the Assistant Secretary Feltman. So our review is ongoing," Crowley said.
The "review" is an illustration of the balancing act the State Department has been playing as it tries to reach out to the Libyan opposition -- while still maintaining its relationship with the Qaddafi government.
Particularly following France's decision today to recognize the anti-Qaddafi movement as the "legitimate representative of the Libyan people," the Obama administration is under pressure to engage the opposition. Clinton will meet with Libyan opposition leaders when she travels to Egypt and Tunisia later this month.
But if the Libyan embassy in Washington is no longer able to talk to the State Department, what should they do? "We expect them to end operating as the embassy of Libya," Clinton said this morning.
What that means for Ali, Fatih, White, and all the other embassy staff caught up in this mess is just as unclear as the future of Libya itself.
Sure, the Nuclear Security Summit is supposed to be about President Obama's drive to secure all the world's loose nuclear material. But hey, since all 47 nations have such high-level leaders in one place, why not set up a bunch of side meetings?
And set them up they did. There are delegations scuttling this way and that, discussing who knows what, and coming up with new combinations for conversations every few minutes. The last one your Cable guy witnessed was when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brought his entourage to meet behind closed doors with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his gang.
The French are having so many meetings, they reserved their own exclusive room to host them. Everyone else has to schedule meeting space one at a time through the State Department.
The Chinese didn't schedule any meetings at the convention center, preferring to hold court back at their hotel, the Wardman Park Marriott in northwest Washington.
And the Israelis don't have any rooms reserved either, according to the State Department. But they are having meetings. We witnessed Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg exit the convention center this morning. (OK, he might not have been there to see the Israelis. But then around noon we saw Special Envoy George Mitchell. I wonder what he was doing there...)
Here are some of the other interesting meetings we are being told about. Russia is having a meeting with Ukraine and we heard Kazakhstan will also attend. Russia is also meeting with Japan. No word yet on what was discussed.
The United Arab Emirates is holding a string of meetings. Today's roster included the French and the Singaporeans, although they missed their chance to meet with the South Africa delegation.
Yesterday, Mexico met with the EU delegation; Spain met with the team from the U.N.; and New Zealand and Chile sat down to talk, just to name a few.
President Obama even found time to squeeze in a few extra sessions. He sat down with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and also scheduled a new bilateral meeting this afternoon with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina.
France's announcement that it will sell an advanced amphibious assault ship to Russia should not complicate ongoing negotiations over Iran sanctions, according to the State Department's top spokesman.
Lawmakers had threatened that if the French government went through with the sale, which would be the first major arms sale to Russia from a NATO country, they would retaliate by resisting administration efforts to exempt France and other countries from sanctions in the Iran legislation making its way through Congress.
It was never clear how serious the threat was, but nonetheless the administration says it will insist on the exemptions, despite the French decision.
"I wouldn't blend the two together," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who noted that negotiations between the administration and lawmakers over Chris Dodd's Iran sanctions legislation are ongoing.
"One of the issues we will be talking to Congress about is to make sure the president has sufficient flexibility to be able to work with other countries effectively for our shared goal of finding ways to put appropriate pressure on Iran to change course," Crowley added.
The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent late last month but the administration will argue for its changes when the bill meets the House version in conference. That conference is not expected until after the administration pursues a new U.N. resolution on Iran.
As for the weapons deal with Russia, "obviously is it something we will consult with the French on and other countries in the region," said Crowley, referring to statements by Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday, who was in Paris. Gates signaled American displeasure with the decision but declined to specify what the U.S. might do about it, if anything.
France's announcement that it will sell the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship to Russia comes at a delicate time for U.S. relations with and Russia, not to mention Georgia, which sees the ship as a potential threat.
Almost every article about the Mistral quotes Russian Adm. Vladimir Vysotskiy, who said in September that the ship "would have allowed [Russia's] Black Sea Fleet to accomplish its mission in 40 minutes" during the 2008 Georgia war, "not 26 hours which is how long it took us."
Russian leaders have distanced themselves from Vysotskiy's statement, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear he will not foreswear using the Mistral wherever his government pleases.
Were you keeping a list of senior GOP lawmakers who are weighing in to oppose the potential French sale of the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship to Russia? If so, add Indiana Senator Richard Lugar to that list.
Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, released a report Tuesday that calls on NATO to take a lead role in coordinating security assistance to Georgia, the culmination of a staff project that included a trip to Tbilisi in late October. The report's conclusions are stark in terms of Lugar's view on how Georgia is faring one year after the Russian invasion.
"As a result of Russian diplomatic pressure and threats to restrict commercial ties with entities selling defense articles to Georgia, the Georgian military has been unable to replenish much of its military capacity that was eviscerated in the war," the report reads.
The last tranche of U.S. post-war assistance to Georgia, $242 million to round out the $1 billion commitment, was notified to Congress in December and went through without objection. The report highlights that the Obama administration decided not to use any of that money to shore up Georgia's lethal capabilities.
"The United States, under substantial Russian diplomatic pressure, has paused the transfer of lethal military articles to Georgia, and no U.S. assistance since the war has been directly provided to the Georgian Ministry of Defense. Consequently, Georgia lacks basic capacity for territorial defense."
Lugar argues that Georgian military weakness increases the risk of armed conflict by pinning the Georgians into a desperate position and raising the possibility of conflict-starting miscalculations.
Despite the unfortunate headline in this otherwise strong Associated Press article, Lugar is not calling on NATO to arm Georgia, exactly. His more nuanced view is that NATO must establish a leadership role in maintaining the security balance in the Caucasus, which is tipping more every day toward the Russian advantage.
That's where the French sale of the Mistral comes in. Several senior GOP lawmakers have come out strongly against the potential sale of the ship, introducing bills and writing letter focused on strategic or tactical concerns.
Lugar's concern is more of a diplomatic one, and it relates to the integrity of NATO as much as the security of Georgia. He references the possible sale of the Mistral specifically.
"Failing a coordinated, NATO-led strategy for security assistance in the region, allies run the risk of disturbing an already fragile political balance and engendering an excessive nationalization of Georgian defense policy."
It remains to be seen if NATO will embrace the role of coordinator for security for Georgia, especially since Georgia seems as far away from NATO membership as ever. But regardless of whether Georgia get in or stays out, NATO is going have stake in Georgian security issues from now on and Lugar's point is that should include ensuring NATO allies don't take unilateral measures to upset the military balance.
As the Senate negotiates with the Obama administration over Iran sanctions, conflict over a French arms sale to Russia could get caught up in the mix.
The friction between top GOP leaders in Congress and the French government is over the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship, which the French are considering selling to the Russian Federation. As the biggest potential arms sale from a NATO country to Russia, U.S. lawmakers are worried this could set off a chain reaction of NATO arms sales to Russia. Plus, they share the concerns of Georgia and the Baltic states that the ship could allow Russia to increase its aggressiveness in its near abroad.
So what does this have to do with Iran sanctions? Well, The Cable brought you exclusively the story of how the State Department wants changes in the Chris Dodd Iran sanctions bill that's currently pending in the Senate. Basically, the Obama administration wants exemptions for countries that cooperate with American sanctions against Iran. France presumably would be at the top of the list.
But a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable that Republicans negotiating over the Iran sanctions language would not allow an exemption for France or French companies if the Mistral deal goes through.
"Whether or not France gets an exemption could very well depend on whether France decides to sell this ship to Russia," the aide said, explaining that "it's possible to draw that exemption narrow enough so that the president could not possibly exempt France."
One obvious target is the French oil and gas giant Total, which could be caught up in the Dodd bill's restrictions on exporting refined petroleum products to Iran. Total is reportedly in negotiations right now with the Chinese regarding a joint project in Iran's South Pars region.
The petroleum restrictions are also at the core of a companion bill which passed overwhelmingly in the House last week.
Recently, American lawmakers have increased their interest and activity in the Mistral story.
Six GOP senators wrote to French Ambassador Pierre Vimont Monday to express their concerns about the potential sale. House Foreign Affairs ranking Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, introduced a bill last week calling on the French to stand down from the deal.
In a letter dated Monday, obtained by The Cable, Vimont responded to the Senators, telling them basically that France would make its own decisions about selling the ship to the Russians, and thanking them for their interest.
"France has no reason to refuse considering a Russian request, which is being examined, and will be concluded, with all the necessary precautions as part of the French military equipment export control regulatory procedures," Vimont wrote.
Vimont also repeated various French defenses of the sale, as told to The Cable by French embassy spokesmen, which include that the ship has been used for humanitarian missions, has no really advanced technological elements, and would not present a credible threat to the NATO alliance.
But multiple Senate aides reached by The Cable felt unsatisfied with that response and pledged to fight on.
"If France decides to go ahead and do this, which the letter all but says they will, our options are limited but it will have consequences for the NATO alliance," one senate aide warned.
The following is a letter sent by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to congratulate U.S. President Barack Obama on his Nobel Peace Prize today:
I was delighted to learn of the decision of the jury in Oslo to award you this year's Nobel Peace Prize for your extraordinary efforts to strengthen diplomacy and international cooperation.
I want to express to you, you personally and the American people, my warmest congratulations.
By awarding you its most prestigious prize, the Committee is rewarding your determined commitment to human rights, justice and spreading peace across the world, in accordance with the will of its founder Alfred Nobel. It also does justice to your vision of tolerance and dialogue between States, cultures and civilizations. Finally, it sets the seal on America's return to the heart of all the world's peoples.
I am particularly happy that this Prize is awarded to you today because I know it will bolster your determination to act for justice, for peace and to safeguard the planet's global balance. I am convinced that everyone, all over the world, will draw from this an even stronger determination to cooperate with you and with America to achieve these common objectives.I can tell you that on this path you will be able to count on my steadfast support and that of France.
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.