Mitt Romney will promise to restore American leadership in the areas of democracy promotion, trade, energy, and he will pledge to build up the military in his speech tonight accepting the GOP nomination for president.
"We will honor America's democratic ideals because a free world is a more peaceful world. This is the bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan. And under my presidency we will return to it once again," the former Massachusetts governor will say tonight, according to excerpts released by the campaign.
That phrasing tracks closely with what senior foreign-policy advisor Rich Williamson said to The Cable last week, although Williamson included John F. Kennedy in the list with Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan.
"The America we all know has been a story of the many becoming one, uniting to preserve liberty, uniting to build the greatest economy in the world, uniting to save the world from unspeakable darkness," Romney will say, hitting on the campaign's theme of getting tougher with adversaries.
"That America, that united America, will preserve a military that is so strong, no nation would ever dare to test it," Romney will add, reinforcing his campaign's promise to increase funding for the military.
Romney will say he has a plan to make the United States "energy independent" by 2020. He will promise to pursue new trade agreements and impose consequences on those countries that cheat in trade. He will take a swipe at Europe and pledge to avoid a Europe-like economic crisis.
"To assure every entrepreneur and every job creator that their investments in America will not vanish as have those in Greece, we will cut the deficit and put America on track to a balanced budget," Romney will say.
He will begin the speech by talking about the hopes that President Barack Obama would be a paradigm-shifting leader -- hopes that Republicans argue have been dashed.
"Four years ago, I know that many Americans felt a fresh excitement about the possibilities of a new president. That president was not the choice of our party, but Americans always come together after elections. We are a good and generous people who are united by so much more than divides us. When that hard-fought election was over -- when the yard signs came down and the television commercials finally came off the air, Americans were eager to go back to work, to live our lives the way Americans always have -- optimistic and positive and confident in the future. That very optimism is uniquely American," he will say.
"I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed. But his promises gave way to disappointment and division. This isn't something we have to accept. Now is the moment when we CAN do something. With your help we will do something." (Emphasis in the original.)
Romney will conclude by promising to be the paradigm-shifting leader that he believes Obama is not.
"If I am elected president of these United States, I will work with all my energy and soul to restore that America, to lift our eyes to a better future. That future is our destiny. That future is out there. It is waiting for us. Our children deserve it, our nation depends upon it, the peace and freedom of the world require it," Romney will say. "And with your help we will deliver it. Let us begin that future together tonight."
Following three prominent defections this weekend, the State Department declared today that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is "crumbling," but can't say how, when, or what comes next.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Monday that the State Department is confident that reports are accurate that Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, a Sunni, has resigned his post only two months after being appointed and has fled to Jordan on his way to Qatar.
Combined with the defection of top Syrian intelligence official Colonel Yaraab Shara and the first Syrian cosmonaut, Major General Mohammed Ahmed Faris, who announced his defection from the Syrian army on YouTube on Sunday evening, all signs point to a regime collapse, Ventrell said.
"These defections ... indicate that the Syria regime is crumbling and losing its grip on power," Ventrell said. "We encourage others to join them in rejecting the horrific actions of the Assad regime and helping the Syrian people chart a new path for Syria, one that is inclusive, peaceful, democratic, and just."
Ventrell, who is filling in for regular spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who is traveling in Africa with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, didn't have any information on whether U.S. officials have been in contact with Hijab or any of the other defectors.
But a State Department official speaking on background said that it was the State Department's understanding that Hijab was not fired by Assad, as the Syrian government claimed, but rather that the Assad regime had "retroactively" fired him "to save face" after he escaped Damascus with his family.
"We don't have a crystal ball. We don't whether it's going to be days or week or how soon," the Assad regime will fall, Ventrell said, but he emphasized that the State Department was working hard to contribute to Syrian opposition-led planning for "the day after" the regime falls.
Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has completed his meetings in Cairo over the weekend with 250 opposition representatives to discuss that planning. And Clinton has added an Aug. 11 stop in Istanbul, where she will meet with Turkish leaders to coordinate next steps on Syria. Meetings with Syrian opposition leaders and civil society representatives in Turkey are possible but not yet finalized, a State Department official said.
Reporters at the briefing pressed Ventrell to say whether the administration still plans to adhere to the plan agreed upon by world leaders last month in Geneva, which calls for a transitional government established by "mutual consent" between the Assad regime and the opposition.
A new transitional authority to govern Syria after the Assad regime falls could include Assad regime members, both political and technocratic officials, but "those hardcore group of people, Assad and his cronies with blood on their hands, would not be part of that transition," Ventrell said. Beyond that, the transitional government should be formed by Syrians, he said.
The administration is not yet supporting the idea of "safe zones" inside Syria, as many in Congress are calling for, but Ventrell referred to Clinton's July 24 comments, when she said that safe havens are coming but declined to say whether the U.S. or the international community should have a role in establishing or defending them.
"We have to work closely with the opposition because more and more territory is being taken, and it will eventually result in a safe haven inside Syria, which will then provide a base for further actions by the opposition," Clinton said.
"And so the opposition has to be prepared. They have to start working on interim governing entities. They have to commit to protecting the rights of all Syrians -- every group of Syrians. They have to set up humanitarian response efforts that we can also support. They've got to safeguard the chemical and biological weapons that we know the Syrian regime has," she said.
"And there's a lot to be done, so we're working across many of these important pillars of a transition that is inevitable. It would be better if it happened sooner," she continued, "but we know we have some hard times ahead of us."
Republican nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney supports directly arming the Syrian rebels, but his surrogate and possible running mate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), says not so fast.
Rubio, a rising star on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, could add some foreign-policy chops to a ticket that is constantly being accused of being light on experience and competence in that department.
But on the major international issue of the day -- Syria -- Rubio and Romney just don't see eye to eye, because Rubio doesn't think it's a good idea to give the Syrian rebels U.S. weapons.
"The most important thing we can do in the short term is help them help themselves become a more effective fighting force and a more accountable one. And I think once that happens [arming the rebels]would be an option," Rubio said in a short Tuesday interview with The Cable.
"Where we could be most helpful to them is that we could be providing them with logistical support, medical support, and humanitarian support, which will allow them to become more cohesive in their fighting capabilities," Rubio said.
As it happens, that's the current policy of the Obama administration, although the administration has also decided to look the other way while Gulf nations send arms to the Syrian rebels, and some reports say that the CIA is even helping to vet rebel groups that might be recipients of those weapons.
Rubio even echoed administration's chief concern about the risks of sending U.S. weapons to the internal Syrian opposition, namely that there's no telling where the weapons might go and who might get their hands on them.
"Once they become more responsible and establish a chain of command so that the weapons aren't going to be used for ill-intended purposes and we know they have control over the supply chain, then I think we can explore arming the rebels," Rubio said.
In contrast, the Romney campaign has been clear that Romney supports the U.S. immediately and directly arming the Syrian rebels with U.S. weapons.
"[Romney has] said we should be willing to arm the moderate opposition. He's said repeatedly he'd be willing and support arming the moderate factions within the opposition," Romney campaign senior advisor for defense and foreign policy Rich Williamson said at the Brookings Institution last week.
Neither Romney nor Rubio supports the idea of U.S. established safe zones inside Syria to protect civilians there, as Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) advocate.
The Cable reported last week that most senators can't explain Romney's Syria policy because they are not familiar with it, and views among GOP caucus members are all over the map.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told The Cable that he supports safe zones but not arming the rebels, and that he just doesn't know how that jives with Romney's views. When asked about Romney's Syria policy, Cornyn said, "I don't know what it is."
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Governments worldwide restricted religious freedom in 2011 through the implementation of blasphemy laws and legislation that favored state-sanctioned groups, while religious minorities who experienced political and demographic transitions tended to suffer the most, stated the 2011 State Department International Religious Freedom Report, which was released Monday.
"Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that pressure is rising," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a speech Monday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "When it comes to this human right ... the world is sliding backwards."
The report highlighted the deteriorating situation in China, whose government continued to increase restrictions on religious practice for Tibetan Buddhist monks in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas. This repression resulted in "at least 12 self-immolations by Tibetans" last year, a trend that Tibetan prime minister Lobsang Sangay emphasized in a recent interview with The Cable. The Chinese government also cracked down on Muslims living in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and religious groups unaffiliated with China's official state-sanctioned "patriotic religious associations," particularly Christian house churches.
Other designated "Countries of Particular Concern" included Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Burma, also known as Myanmar. According to the report, Burma eased some restrictions on religious freedom, though it continued to "monitor the meetings and activities of all organizations, including religious organizations, and required religious groups to seek permission from authorities before holding any large public events." The Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, which the Burmese government refuses to recognize as citizens, were especially targeted.
In Egypt, where the population democratically elected an Islamist government, the country's post-Mubarak transition remains tenuous, as Coptic Christians still face persecution. On October 9, for example, hundreds of demonstrators -- mostly Copts -- were attacked by Egyptian security forces in the Maspiro area of Cairo.
"Now, I am concerned that respect for religious freedom is quite tenuous, and I don't know if that's going to quickly be resolved, but since 2011 and the fall of the Mubarak regime, sectarian violence has increased," Clinton said. "We don't think that there's been a consistent commitment to investigate and apply the laws."
Regarding recently elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook said during a briefing Monday that the U.S. government expects him follow through on his commitment to religious freedom and diversity.
"President Morsi has said publicly that in his new government, he will include Coptic Christians, secular citizens, and a woman," she said. "So we are looking for him to follow through on what his promise was."
The new government in Libya, which stopped enforcing Ghaddafi-era laws that restricted religious freedom and institutionalized the free practice of religion in its interim constitution, was cited as a case of tangible success.
"They [the Libyan government] have come to believe that the best way to deal with offensive speech is not to ban it, but to counter it with speech that reveals the lies," the Secretary said.
Another trend on the rise in 2011 was global anti-Semitism, fueled by anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt, Holocaust denial in Iran, the desecration of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries and France, and the openly anti-Semitic and nationalistic Jobbik party in Hungary.
The Mitt Romney campaign is about to open up a new front against President Barack Obama on foreign policy; he will ramp up his criticism of the administration's record on democracy promotion and human rights, and begin talking about the "freedom agenda."
The Romney campaign's foreign policy platform, which is often criticized for being light on specifics and concrete policies, has always been centered around the argument that Romney believes in American exceptionalism in a way that Obama doesn't. In his speech this week at the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference, Romney said, "I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known, and that our influence is needed as much now as ever. And I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century."
When Romney arrives in Poland on Monday -- the third stop of his international trip -- he will expand upon that theme to make the argument that America must lead the global march of freedom and democracy, as the United States has done throughout its history, and in particular during the Cold War, when Poland struggled for freedom and independence from the Soviet Union.
"Barack Obama has broken with a tradition that goes back to Woodrow Wilson about human rights and values animating our foreign policy. This administration has not been an effective voice for human rights," said Romney campaign senior advisor for foreign policy and defense Rich Williamson, who also served as George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan, in an exclusive interview on Friday with The Cable.
"Mitt Romney believes in the march of freedom. Like Ronald Reagan, Romney thinks we can't control the pace of freedom, but there should be no doubt where our ultimate goal is and that is for all people to be free," said Williamson. "Barack Obama doesn't get it. He hasn't kept faith with those people who seek freedom for themselves and their children and that has been a disappointment to our heritage, to who were are, and to those brave people who are struggling for freedom and human rights in their countries. He doesn't get that's a responsibility of the leader of the free world."
Williamson said Romney's vision on democracy, human rights, and the freedom agenda is rooted in Ronald Reagan's June 1982 speech at Westminster, when Reagan said, "Democracy is not a fragile flower. Still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy."
"When it comes to human rights and values, Obama has a different vision of where America comes from, what has made us great, and what our obligation and responsibility is to the world," Williamson said.
Williamson pointed out that Obama didn't mention the word "democracy" even once in his inaugural address, a stark contrast from Bush's second inaugural address, which stated, "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
More broadly, the Romney campaign is expanding its messaging to highlight what they perceive to be the Obama administration's de-prioritization of human rights as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy and its perceived neglect of struggling democratic and freedom movements around the world, including in places like Iran, Russia, China, and many more.
Even in its first few months, says Williamson, Obama administration officials made several moves that revealed their strategy of deprioritizing human rights, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's downplaying of human rights on her first visit to China in Feb. 2009, and Obama's decision not to speak out vocally in favor of the Green Revolution in Iran that summer.
The Romney campaign also sees the Obama administration as being inconsistent on human rights in its dealings with the Arab Spring, Williamson said. First, Clinton and others made statements defending Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Later, the administration made the case for humanitarian intervention when deciding to attack Libya. Now, the administration is ignoring the plight of Syrians being slaughtered by the government of Bashar al-Assad, he argued.
"Either Obama doesn't understand who were are as a people, or he finds those values to be just ideas that are convenient, clothes that are to be worn when it's fashionable. The fact is those values are there every day and you have to have fidelity to it," Williamson said.
Williamson pointed to the administration's "reset" policy to Russia amid a government crackdown on free speech and democracy; Obama's friendship with Turkey as the government harasses and jails journalists at an alarming rate; and the administration's quick loosening of sanctions in Burma -- all examples of the Obama's focus on reaching out to governments while neglecting the aspirations of suffering peoples.
"Putin's election was determined not to be free and fair and what does Obama do? He calls Putin to congratulate him," he said. "The authoritarian drift of Russia at home does not seem to be an issue for this administration."
Williamson said the administration has also been too conciliatory to the regime of indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, downplayed the genocide in Darfur, and ignored the plight of Tibetans, Uighurs, members of the Falun Gong sect, and other oppressed minorities in China.
The Obama administration often says that it tries hard to balance American interests and values and that it includes human rights in its dealings with all governments, especially those with poor records on treatment of their own citizens. Williamson said Romney agrees that it's a false choice to say American can't be strong on human rights while defending its interests, but Romney thinks Obama is not striking that balance correctly.
"The goal of our foreign policy is first and foremost our national defense and then economic interests. But it should be animated by our values, and every president grapples with that balance." he said. "But President Obama has gone to an extreme of discounting human rights that hasn't been seen during the tenures of Republican or Democratic presidents."
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China's oppression of Tibetans and their culture is preventing China from becoming a modern, pluralistic, free, and democratic nation, according to Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of Tibet's government in exile, who added that the current Chinese system and policy in Tibet is destined to fail.
"If Tibet is granted autonomy, that could be a catalyst for moderation of China because if the Chinese government grants autonomy to Tibetans, for the first time they are accepting diversity within and accepting a distinct if not different people," Sangay, who is also known as the Kalon Tripa, told The Cable in an exclusive interview during his visit to Washington last week.
"I think no system which is authoritarian, or one-party rule, can last long. Ultimately, other people have to be taken into consideration, have to be empowered and respected by the system, because universality of freedom is established now," he said. "In that sense I do believe the universality of freedom will prevail and justice will prevail in Tibet as well."
For now, Chinese repressive and violent treatment of Tibetans inside China is increasing and tensions between Tibetans and Han Chinese are reaching new and dangerous levels, Sangay said. The Tibetan people, dedicated to nonviolence, have resorted to self-immolations in record numbers this year to protest their treatment at the hands of the Chinese government, he said. Forty-four Tibetans have self-immolated over the last 18 months and 34 of those have died.
Meanwhile, Tibet has been closed off to foreign tourists, Tibetan visitors are being expelled from the Tibetan capital Lhasa, and thousands of Han Chinese are being brought into Tibet to artificially alter the demographic balance there.
"That means the Chinese government is really cutting off Tibet and Lhasa from the rest of the world," said Sangay, who came to Washington to meet with administration officials and lawmakers to rally support for the region's plight.
Unlike his first visit to Washington since becoming Tibet's first ever competitively elected prime minister last year, when no U.S. officials would meet with him, this year Sangay was able to meet with two top Obama administration officials. The White House confirmed that Sangay met with NSC Senior Director for Asia Daniel Russel and the State Department confirmed he met with Under Secretary of State Maria Otero.
Both meetings happened in non-U.S. government buildings, however, in a likely effort to stave off a diplomatic blast from Beijing. Sangay also met with several lawmakers, including Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
Sangay said there's no reason for U.S. officials to be wary of meeting Tibetans.
"Meeting Tibetans and receiving his Holiness the Dalai Lama is not zero-sum," he said. "Some have this mindset that if I meet a Tibetan I'll be in trouble with the Chinese government, but the Chinese will meet with you and do business with you because they get a good deal. Tomorrow if they get a better deal from some other country, they'll do that too."
"And at the larger level, if Tibetans are ignored, essentially what you're ignoring is nonviolence and democracy," he said. "So in that sense I think from a democratic point of view, from a nonviolent point of view, supporting Tibet is vital because we are trying to be and we have proven in the last five decades to be a torchbearer of nonviolence and democracy."
During his meetings with officials and lawmakers, Sangay updated them on what he sees as a ramping up of Chinese government persecution of Tibetans, which included the arrest and detention of thousands of Tibetans who traveled to India in January to hear a teaching from the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, and violence against Tibetans who protested in February during the Chinese New Year that resulted in at least 6 deaths.
"Unfortunately, instead of the Chinese government addressing the issues, they're resorting to the blame game and saying these protests are instigated from outside, that self-immolations are happening because of influence from the outside," he said. "But even the generation of Tibetans who grew up under the Chinese system who have not met outside Tibetans and the Dalai Lama are protesting against the Chinese government, which clearly indicates the failures of Chinese government policies."
Chinese repression of Tibetans is not just a human rights issue, he said. The Tibetan plateau houses 10 major rivers that provide water for over a third of the world's population and the Chinese government is damning those rivers in ways that are sure to alter the environment unpredictably. The Chinese government has built the second-largest mine in Asia in Tibet, he complained, destroying historical and also sacred mountains.
"Some experts say that wars were fought over land before, now wars are fought over energy and soon wars will be fought over water, and Tibet constitutes if not the largest than one of the largest sources of freshwater," Sangay said.
Sangay's message to U.S. officials and lawmakers was to ask for a fact-finding mission to be sent to Tibet to investigate the situation there.
He also repeated his call for limited Tibetan autonomy within the Chinese system, similar to how China treats Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to China in 1997 but still enjoys some control over its own affairs.
"We are asking for genuine autonomy within China, within the framework of the Chinese constitution. We are not challenging Chinese sovereignty or territorial integrity so we are willing to accept the One China concept," he said.
Chinese officials are in Washington Monday and Tuesday for the semi-regular U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue, a set of talks Washington insists are productive but that critics see as routine and light on deliverables. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly urged the Chinese government to reopen a dialogue with the Tibetan people last week during a meeting in Cambodia.
"The secretary's been forthright, the president has been forthright, that we have serious, ongoing concerns about a variety of human rights issues and rule-of-law issues in China, and we are always open and clear about those with Chinese officials," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at Monday's press briefing.
Sangay wrote in a July 13 Washington Post op-ed that such statements are welcome but not nearly enough to help the Tibetan people.
"The time has come for the world to shut out the noise of China's influence and to hear the Tibetan cries: that repression is unbearable and unacceptable," he wrote. "Because we know that the democracies of the world recognize basic human rights and freedoms to be universal values, we ask the international community to intervene before our situation deteriorates even further."
In his interview with The Cable, Sangay also noted the irony of the Chinese government's attempts to choose the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, even though the Chinese government denies the validity of organized religion.
"The communist party thinks of religion as poison, and his Holiness is called the Devil, so why are the Chinese so interested in the reincarnation of the Devil?" he said. "So we think they have no business in reincarnation because they don't believe in it to begin with, and even if they try to intervene, Tibetans will not believe it. It's like Fidel Castro saying I'll select the next Pope and Catholics should believe it. That's not going to happen, so the Chinese government might try, but it's bound to fail."
Technology and information penetration in China will eventually force the Great Firewall of China to crumble and even lead to the political opening of the Chinese system, according to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.
Schmidt, who stepped down as Google's CEO last year, remains the head of Google's board and its chief spokesman. He roams the planet speaking to audiences and exploring countries where Google could expand its operations. He has been called Google's "Ambassador to the World," a moniker he doesn't promote but doesn't dispute. He sat down for a long interview with The Cable on the sidelines of the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival last week.
"I believe that ultimately censorship fails," said Schmidt, when asked about whether the Chinese government's censorship of the Internet can be sustained. "China's the only government that's engaged in active, dynamic censorship. They're not shy about it."
When the Chinese Internet censorship regime fails, the penetration of information throughout China will also cause political and social liberalization that will fundamentally change the nature of the Chinese government's relationship to its citizenry, Schmidt believes.
"I personally believe that you cannot build a modern knowledge society with that kind of behavior, that is my opinion," he said. "I think most people at Google would agree with that. The natural next question is when [will China change], and no one knows the answer to that question. [But] in a long enough time period, do I think that this kind of regime approach will end? I think absolutely."
The push for information freedom in China goes hand in hand with the push for economic modernization, according to Schmidt, and government-sponsored censorship hampers both.
"We argue strongly that you can't build a high-end, very sophisticated economy... with this kind of active censorship. That is our view," he said.
The Chinese government is the most active state sponsor of cyber censorship and cyber espionage in the world, with startling effectiveness, Schmidt said. Google and Beijing have been at odds since 2010, when the company announced it would no longer censor search terms on Google.cn and moved the bulk of its Chinese operations to Hong Kong. That move followed a series of Gmail attacks in 2010, directed at Chinese human rights activists, which were widely suspected to be linked to the Chinese government.
More recently, Google has taken an aggressive approach to helping users combat government cyber censorship, by doing things such as warning Gmail users when Google suspects their accounts are being targeted by state-sponsored attacks and telling users when search terms they enter are likely to be rejected by Chinese government censorship filters.
Schmidt doesn't present Google's focus on state-sponsored cyber oppression as a fight between Google and China. Google's policy is focused on helping users understand what is happening to their accounts and giving them the tools to protect themselves, he explained.
"We believe in empowering people who care about freedom of expression," he said. "The evidence today is that Chinese attacks are primarily industrial espionage.... It's primarily trade secrets that they're trying to steal, and then the human rights issues, that obviously they're trying to violate people's human rights. So those are the two things that we know about, but I'm sure that there will be others."
Google still has hundreds of engineers working inside China and maintains a rapidly growing advertising business there. But the Chinese government is likewise doing a lot to make using Google difficult inside China. There are weeks when Gmail services run slow; then mysteriously, the service will begin running smoothly again, Schmidt said. The Chinese censors sometimes issue punitive timeouts to users who enter prohibited search terms. And YouTube, which is owned by Google, is not visible in China.
"It's probably the case where the Chinese government will continue to make it difficult to use Google services," said Schmidt. "The conflict there is at some basic level: We want that information [flowing] into China, and at some basic level the government doesn't want that to happen."
Meanwhile, Schmidt has been circling the globe looking for ways to expand Google's outer frontiers. His last international trip took him to four conflict or recently post-conflict states: Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, and Tunisia.
"I've become particularly interested in the expansion of Google in sort of wacky countries -- you know, countries that have problems," he said. "You can't really know stuff unless you travel and see it. It helps with your impressions and your judgment."
Schmidt believes that smartphone technology can have a revolutionary effect on how people in the developing world operate and he is researching how smartphone use can help fight corruption and bad governance in poor countries. He also sees Google's expansion into the emerging markets as a timely business move.
"The evidence is that the most profitable business in most countries initially is the telecom sector. The joke is that you know the Somali pirates have to use cellphones, and so the strongest and most fastest-growing legal business in Somalia is the telecom industry," he said.
The revolutions of the Arab Spring show that open information systems can encourage and enable political change, according to Schmidt.
"I think that the countries that we're talking about all had very active censorship regimes, and they failed to censor the Internet. They wired the phone systems, the television was controlled, the newspapers were controlled; it was very hard to find genuinely new dissident voices except on the Internet. So you can think of what happened there as a failure to fully censor, and so it's obvious why we feel so strongly about openness and transparency," he said.
Unlike in China, Google has taken a more active role in other parts of the world by developing tools to spread information that could be used to foster more active democracies, such as with its project to organize and disseminate election information and political candidate data in places like Egypt.
"We're helping with the elections. So we're trying to help them with getting information to the candidates, and these are countries where Google is central to the public sphere," Schmidt said.
Google is also expanding its role in compiling data on government actors and their actions to aid people in the fight against corruption, but here Schmidt warns that only when there is a legal system to prosecute bad actors will this data be transformative.
"You need the data, and then you need somebody who's willing to prosecute the person who lies," he said. "All you have to do is have the information and then the penalty that has to be applied in a fair way, and it would change these countries dramatically."
Information is not enough to topple regimes, but in the end, regimes that fight the openness of information are doomed to fail, he said.
"The worst case scenario is the citizens have enormous information and the government is completely unresponsive. That would be Iran, for example. At some point, that's unstable," said Schmidt. "At some point, it gets worse ... but before they overthrow the current leader, they have to have the information to do that. That's why transparency matters."
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
The House Foreign Affairs Committee marked up a bill today to punish Russian human rights violators, moving that bill closer to passage in conjunction with another bill to grant Russia privileged trade with the United States.
Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) convened her committee on Thursday morning to approve the House version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago. Her committee counterpart Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) said during the markup he supports joining the Magnitsky bill with a coming bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, which would include a repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, established to punish Russia for not allowing Jews to emigrate during the Soviet period.
"The entire world knows that the state of democracy and human rights in Russia, already bad, is getting worse," Ros-Lehtinen said at the markup. "Moscow devotes enormous resources and attention to persecuting political opponents and human rights activists, including forcibly breaking up rallies and jailing and beating those who dare to defy it. Instead of the rule of law, Russia is ruled by the lawless."
The Obama administration is publicly opposed to the Magnitsky bill, especially the effort to connect it to Jackson-Vanik repeal, and has been working behind the scenes with bill sponsors such as Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) to alter the legislation. "From our point of view this legislation is redundant to what we're already doing," U.S. Ambassador Russia Mike McFaul said in March.
One of the administration ideas is to expand the Magnitsky bill to deal with human rights violators from all countries, but doing so wouldn't eliminate strong Russian objections to the bill. A short amendment added to the House version today by Ros-Lehtinen makes clear that the bill is directed only at Russia.Cardin even came up with a new draft version of the legislation in April. The Cable obtained an internal document showing exactly what changed in the bill. For example, the new version makes it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill would create, potentially softening the bill's impact on Russian officials
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed consideration of the Magnitsky bill in April, so that the details inside the bill could be ironed out. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) has promised to take up the bill in that committee at their as yet unscheduled next business meeting. He has also said he supports joining the Magnitsky bill with legislation to repeal Jackson-Vanik.
In both chambers, the bill faces cross jurisdiction with the finance and possible judiciary committees, which means they would also have to approve the legislation, because it deals with financial sanctions and criminal prosecutions. The Senate Finance Committee under chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is where the Russian PNTR bill would begin as well, although it's not clear whether the PNTR bill, which would include the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, would be joined with the Magnitsky bill in committee or on the floor.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee also approved today a bill calling for the International Olympic Committee to hold a moment of silence at the 2012 London games to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic team members in Munich. The IOC has thus far refused requests to hold a moment of silence, saying that it is unnecessary and would establish an unwelcome precedent. That drive is being led by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Nita Lowey (D-NY), and Steve Israel (D-NY).
Another bill approved today by the HFAC would express "sense of the House of Representatives with respect toward the establishment of a democratic and prosperous Republic of Georgia and the establishment of a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict with Georgia's internationally recognized borders."
The committee also approved a resolution expressing support for efforts to combat the Lord's Resistance Army and secure the imprisonment of Joseph Kony, a bill calling upon the Turkey to reopen the Ecumenical Patriarchate's theological school at Halks, and the "Donald M. Payne International Food Assistance Act of 2012," which is mean to improve the quality and effectiveness of U.S. food assistance programs abroad.
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The congressional drive to update a 1948 law on how the U.S. government manages its public diplomacy has kicked off a heated debate over whether Congress is about to allow the State Department to propagandize Americans. But the actual impact of the change is less sinister than it might seem.
On May 18, Buzzfeed published a story by reporter Michael Hastings about the bipartisan congressional effort to change the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 (as amended by the Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987). The story was entitled, "Congressmen seek to lift propaganda ban," and focuses on the successful effort by Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA) to add their Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 as an amendment to the House version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
The new legislation would "authorize the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences." The Buzzfeed article outlines concerns inside the defense community that the Pentagon might now be allowed to use information operations and propaganda operations against U.S. citizens. A correction added to the story notes that Smith-Mundt doesn't apply to the Pentagon in the first place.
In fact, the Smith-Mundt act (as amended in 1987) only covers the select parts of the State Department that are engaged in public diplomacy efforts abroad, such as the public diplomacy section of the "R" bureau, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the body that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other U.S. government-funded media organizations.
Implementation of the law over the years has been selective, haphazard, and at times confusing, because even State Department bureaus often aren't sure if they have to abide by it. The Thornberry-Smith language is meant to fix that by applying Smith-Mundt to the entire State Department and USAID.
The Defense Department, meanwhile, has its own "no propaganda" rider, enshrined in the part of U.S. code that covers the Pentagon, and that is not affected in any way by either Smith-Mundt as it stands or by the proposed update now found in the defense bill. The only reason the Smith-Mundt modernization bill was attached to the defense bill was because that bill is one that's sure to move and Congress hasn't actually passed a foreign affairs authorization bill in years.
"To me, it's a fascinating case study in how one blogger was pretty sloppy, not understanding the issue and then it got picked up by Politico's Playbook, and you had one level of sloppiness on top of another. And once something sensational gets out there, it just spreads like wildfire," Thornberry told The Cable in an interview today.
He said the update for Smith-Mundt was intended to recognize that U.S. public diplomacy needs to compete on the Internet and through satellite channels and therefore the law preventing this information from being available to U.S. citizens was simply obsolete.
"It should be completely obvious that a law first passed in 1948 might need to be updated to reflect a world of the Internet and satellite [TV]," he said. "If you want the State Department to engage on the war of ideas, it has to do it over the Internet and satellite channels, which don't have geographical borders."
Salon writer Glenn Greenwald interviewed Smith Tuesday and wrote a story questioning whether the law would allow the State Department to try to influence American public opinion though "propaganda." He noted a press release on the Thornberry-Smith legislation which complained that Smith-Mundt had prevented a Minneapolis radio station from replaying VOA broadcasts to Somali-Americans to rebut terrorist propaganda.
Thornberry's response was to say that the 21st century media environment is already so diverse and open that opening Americans' access to one more source of information, State Department-produced news and information, was not likely to propagandize American citizens.
"It makes me chuckle. This is not 1948 when everybody was tuned to a few radio stations and the fear was that the information we were sending to Eastern Bloc countries was going to affect American politics," he said. "The idea that the State Department could be so effective as to impact domestic politics is just silly. This gives Americans the chance to see what the State Department is saying to people all over the world."
In fact, advocates of the bill tout the issue of transparency and oversight of U.S. public diplomacy as one of the main benefits of the new bill. Previously, oversight of State Department public diplomacy efforts abroad was done by an advisory commission inside the State Department that was shut down last year, while Congress and the media has little to no direct access to the material.
Thornberry said that domestic dissemination of the material will actually increase the transparency and oversight of U.S. public diplomacy by laying it bare for Americans to chew over.
"If all these bloggers see the State Department trying to influence something domestically, they will be the first to raise the alarm," he said. "It is always going to be true that you have to look at the effectiveness and truthfulness of the content of the information. But it would no longer be against the law that the American people can see it."
Matt Armstrong, who was the executive director of the State Department's advisory commission on public diplomacy before it got shut down because Congress declined to reauthorize it, explained on his Mountainrunner blog that Smith-Mundt was designed by a Cold War U.S. government that simply didn't trust the State Department to talk directly to the American people.
"The Smith-Mundt Act is misunderstood and often mistaken for ‘anti-propaganda' legislation intended to censor the Government. The reality is the original prohibition on the State Department disseminating inside the U.S. its own information products designed for audiences abroad was, first, to protect the Government from the State Department and, second, to protect commercial media," he wrote.
In an interview today, Armstrong pointed out that the Thornberry-Smith bill explicitly notes that two existing provisions of Smith-Mundt, both of which would remain intact, address concerns that the State Department might overreach in trying to influence Americans. Section 1437 of the existing legislation requires the State Department to defer to private media whenever possible and Section 1462 requires State to withdraw from a government information activity whenever a private media source is found as an adequate replacement.
He said the law as it stands is just not working and doesn't make a lot of sense. "When Cal Ripkin or Michele Kwan go to China, Americans aren't supposed to know that they went or what they did there. In addition, virtually anything that's on a U.S. embassy website is off limits," he said.
The discussion over Smith-Mundt is further distorted by a lack of understanding about what public diplomacy is and when it crosses over into "propaganda."
"Let's face it, it is impossible to communicate and not influence.. The idea here is that U.S. public diplomacy is not based on lies," said Armstrong. "There's this misconception that public diplomacy is propaganda. Propaganda is a lie, a deception, or intentional ambiguity, none of which can be lead to effective public diplomacy by any country, let alone the U.S."
Of course, the State Department's Public Affairs bureaucracy, which speaks to Americans every day in various forms, is capable of "propaganda," but is not covered by Smith-Mundt. The Cable asked State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at today's press briefing if State supported the Thornberry-Smith legislation.
"We have long thought that aspects of Smith-Mundt need to be modernized, that in a 24-7 Internet age it's hard to draw hard lines like the original Smith-Mundt [Act] did in the ‘40s," she said.
We then asked Nuland whether the State Department has any intent to propagandize American citizens.
"We do not and never have," she said with a smile.
As the war in Afghanistan winds down, Afghan women and those who support them are clamoring to make sure that years of progress in women's rights are not reversed as the international community leaves.
The State Department's ambassador at large for global women's issues, Melanne Verveer, represented the U.S. government at a series of events in Chicago meant to highlight the plight of Afghanistan's female population and urge their inclusion in the political process. There was only one woman in the Afghan government's official delegation, but Verveer and others strove to make sure the issue didn't get short shrift in Chicago.
Verveer headlined a "shadow summit for Afghan women" Sunday in Chicago that included the participation of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). The goal of the summit was to urge Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO leaders, especially President Barack Obama, to boost women's participation in Afghan civil society development and to call on them to protect hard-fought rights for Afghan women if and when the Taliban re-enter the Afghan government.
"This issue was not one that should be viewed as a favor to women, but one that is absolutely critical to any future progress, stability, or peace in Afghanistan," Verveer said in a Monday interview with The Cable.
She noted that the joint declaration issued at the summit Monday gave a nod to women's equality in Afghanistan but said that more work needed to be done to ensure promises will be kept if the Taliban join the government.
"Red lines have been established [for Taliban reconciliation] that, in addition to renunciation of violence and rejection of al Qaeda, talk about adherence to the constitution, which includes women's rights and all that represents," Verveer said. "It has been an intensive, extensive, ongoing effort and that will continue."
Leading human rights groups are not so sure that effort is succeeding. Amnesty International, the organization that convened the shadow summit, released Sunday an open letter to Obama and Karzai pleading for more protections and a greater role for Afghan women.
"We are concerned that the U.S. and allied withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 may put women and girls at even greater risk of abuses... In this climate, we are alarmed that inadequate attention is being paid to women's rights and participation in peace talks with the Taliban," stated the letter.
"The United States, Afghanistan and other relevant parties must commit to clear, measurable steps to ensure that women's and girls' rights are protected and that positive momentum is maintained. Without these safeguards, any peace agreement will represent false progress and doom Afghanistan to repeat its repressive past."
The letter was signed by Albright, Schakowsky, actress Meryl Streep, musician Joan Baez, former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, artist Yoko Ono, feminist leader Gloria Steinem, musician Sting, and many others.
Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, told The Cable Monday that although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken out about Afghan women, there's a lot more the U.S. government can and must do.
"This weekend's summit contained no specific recognition of the circumstances women faced under the Taliban, the progress that has been made over the last 10 years and the primary importance of making sure that progress continues," she said. "There's not a sense this is being considered a critical piece of the overall transition process. This really requires presidential leadership."
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President George W. Bush predicted Tuesday that the remaining authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East are unsustainable and will give way to movements driven by the quest for freedom and human rights.
"These are extraordinary times in the history of freedom," Bush said in Tuesday morning remarks. "In the Arab Spring, we have seen the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. Great change has come to a region where many thought it impossible. The idea that Arab people are somehow content with oppression has been discredited forever."
Bush was speaking at an event to celebrate and publicize the "Freedom Collection," a set of artifacts from democratic struggles around the world, collected by the George W. Bush Institute, run by former magazine editor and State Department official James Glassman.
Bush cautioned that there were risks to democratic change and that sometime overthrowing authoritarian regimes leads to periods of instability, but argued that American had to always support those fighting against oppression.
"Some look at the risks inherent in democratic change -- particularly in the Middle East and North Africa -- and find the dangers too great. America, they argue, should be content with supporting the flawed leaders they know in the name of stability," he said. "But in the long run, this foreign-policy approach is not realistic. It is not realistic to presume that so-called stability enhances our national security. Nor is it within the power of America to indefinitely preserve the old order, which is inherently unstable."
In a return to the soaring rhetoric of his second inaugural address, Bush said that America's role in each country undergoing change in the Arab world will be different but that the United States must always side with people against dictators and should do everything it can to help emerging democracies build civic institutions and a pluralist political culture.
"America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East, or elsewhere. It only gets to choose what side it is on. The tactics of promoting freedom will vary, case by case," he said. "But America's message should ring clear and strong: We stand for freedom -- and for the institutions and habits that make freedom work for everyone. The day when a dictator falls or yields to a democratic movement is glorious."
Bush was introduced by Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid. "All of us here today join you in hoping and praying for the end of violence and the advance of freedom in Syria," Bush said to him, joking, "I actually found my freedom by leaving Washington."
Chinese activist Bob Fu spoke after Bush. He was followed by Laura Bush, who introduced Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who answered questions live via Skype.
Suu Kyi said that while she favored a non-violent approach to confronting dictatorships, she understood that the Syrian people had no choice but to meet the government's violence with violence of their own.
"We should all help people's struggle for freedom around the world," she said. "I would like to say to the people of Syria, we are with you in your struggle for freedom."
Suu Kyi will soon go on her first trip abroad in 24 years after recently being released from house arrest and elected to the Burmese parliament. She will travel to London and Oslo, Norway, where she will formally accept her peace prize, granted in 1991 while she was under house arrest.
Suu Kyi could not confirm rumors that a large number of Burmese government ministers are about to resign. She did say that she supports Sen. John McCain's idea to "suspend" some sanctions against the Burmese state as further incentive for the military government to continue reforms.
"This is a possible first step," she said. "That is a way of sending a strong message that we will try to help the process of democratization but if this is not maintained we will have to think of other ways of making sure the aspirations of the Burmese people for democracy is respected."
"I believe that sanctions have been effective in persuading this government to go for change," she said. "I do advocate caution, though. I sometimes feel that people are too optimistic about what we are seeing in Burma. You have to remember that the change in Burma is not irreversible."
Syrian government forces continue to attack opposition forces, civilians, and aid volunteers, preventing the international community from getting emergency aid to the Syrian people, USAID has detailed in a series of internal reports obtained by The Cable.
In its latest "humanitarian update," written at the end of April, USAID reported in detail the extensive attacks perpetrated by Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) troops, despite an ongoing U.N. monitoring mission and in direct violation of the "cease-fire" there. The USAID report, marked "sensitive but unclassified," sourced its findings to U.N. representatives in Syria as well as representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), and other aid groups on the ground.
"U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan expressed concerns regarding reports of SARG reprisal attacks in areas where Syrian civilians met with U.N. observers, including in Hamah and Damascus governorates," the report stated. "The observers report that SARG forces have not withdrawn heavy weapons from urban centers -- a condition of the U.N. and Arab League supported ceasefire and peace plan that went into effect on April 12."
Although the U.N. Security Council has authorized the deployment of 300 monitors, the report could only confirm that "at least 11" U.N. monitors had arrived in Syria as of April 24. (Additional monitors have reportedly arrived since then.)
Meanwhile, USAID reported that government forces attacked an SARC vehicle April 24 that was evacuating wounded civilians in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, killing one aid volunteer and injuring three. Twenty-six aid workers were trapped in an SARC building following the attack and the SARC had to negotiate a temporary ceasefire between opposition and government forces to get them out, USAID reported.
Following a request from SARC, USAID contractors have suspended the deployment of mobile medical units that were providing health-care services in and around Damascus, the report said.
"In addition to emergency medical needs resulting from ongoing violence, a USAID/OFDA partner report increasing constraints on the availability of medications for chronic diseases, which are prohibitively expensive for Syrians without financial assistance," the report stated. "In addition, the U.N. World Health Organization representatives have expressed concern about the health of displaced Syrians in Jordan."
A USAID contractor is working to train Syrian doctors in Jordan so they can return to Syria and provide life saving medical care there, and a USAID contractor has procured 10,000 kg of medical supplies for use in Syria and is trying to get those supplies into the country, according to the report.
In an April 26 press briefing, USAD Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Christa Capozzola criticized the Syrian regime for not allowing emergency aid supplies to reach the Syrian people and called for more help.
"While some aid is reaching people in need through the Red Crescent, other U.N. agencies, and other international organizations, current humanitarian access restrictions remain a significant challenge to the aid effort," she said. "After months of working under these conditions, the aid organizations working in Syria are extremely stretched. To continue alleviating suffering and saving lives, they need more support and capacity from the international community.
The U.S. government has spent $39.4 million on assistance for Syria in fiscal 2012, the report stated. The report noted that only $33 million of this assistance has been publicly reported before now.
Overall, the USAID report concluded that there had been at least 9,000 civilian deaths in Syria as of March 27, according to U.N. figures, although the current number is likely higher. There are between 300,000 and 500,000 internally displaced Syrians, according to the report, 610,000 estimated refuges inside Syria, and approximately 66,000 Syrian refuges who have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.
The USAID report was marked sensitive but unclassified (SBU).
U.S. Agency for International Development
The State Department has been silent about what it will do about Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist and self-taught lawyer reported to have fled house arrest and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. But Chen had good reason to believe America was on his side.
Dating back years before his Thursday escape, the State Department has repeatedly and publicly demanded Chen's release while carefully documenting the Chinese government's abuses of him and his family.
Most recently, in a November speech in Honolulu, entitled, "America's Pacific Century," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled out Chen's house arrest to complain about China's human rights practices.
"We have made very clear our serious concerns about China's record on human rights," she said. "When we see reports of lawyers, artists, and others who are detained or disappeared, the United States speaks up both publicly and privately. We are alarmed by recent incidents in Tibet of young people lighting themselves on fire in desperate acts of protest, as well as the continued house arrest of the Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng. We continue to call on China to embrace a different path."
Clinton raised the issue of Chen's treatment directly with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during their bilateral meeting that same day, according to a senior State Department official speaking to reporters at the time.
Administration officials won't say anything right now about Chen, shown at left above with dissident Hu Jia, as rumors fly that the U.S. and Chinese governments are having top-level discussions about the case, which threatens to disrupt Clinton's trip to China next week for a major security and economic dialogue. The AP reported that Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was dispatched to Beijing earlier than planned to deal with the crisis.
At Friday's State Department press briefing, Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated variations of the same phrase six times to avoid saying anything substantive about the potential asylum case. "I don't have anything for you on that subject," she said.
A senior White House official repeated that same line on a Friday afternoon conference call to preview Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiki Noda's visit to Washington on Monday. The State Department abruptly cancelled a conference call to preview Clinton's trip to China next week.
Reporters at the briefing pressed Nuland to acknowledge that Clinton had spoken out several times about Chen in the past, but Nuland refused to repeat past calls for Chen's release or say anything substantive about his situation.
"I don't have anything for you on that subject," she said. "I don't have anything on this issue at all."
The State Department has used Chen as a premier example of China's human rights shortfalls, and several U.S. government reports have documented what they see as the unlawfulness and unfairness of Chen's imprisonment and house arrest.
In a press availability at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last April, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights Michael Posner criticized the Chinese government's treatment of Chen and said it was part of a much broader pattern of oppression dispensed on those whose speech or activism run afoul of the Chinese government.
"A particular concern is what seems to be a range of interferences with the work of lawyers who are often courageously working to defend others from charges or to help citizens register their concerns. Lawyers like Teng Biao who has been missing since February; Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who with his wife Yuan Weijing is under house arrest since his release from prison last year," Posner said.
"Our discussions these last two days focused on these lawyers, but also bloggers, artists, NGO activists, journalists, representatives of minority religious communities and others who were asserting their rights and calling for reform... Societies need to give their own people an opportunity to voice and pursue their aspirations."
In a January 2011 speech at the State Department, Clinton pledged to advocate for human rights progress in China despite Chinese government objections, and invoked Chen as a problematic example of Chinese repression.
"America will continue to speak out and to press China when it censors bloggers and imprisons activists; when religious believers, particularly those in unregistered groups, are denied full freedom of worship; when lawyers and legal advocates are sent to prison simply for representing clients who challenge the government's positions; and when some, like Chen Guangcheng, are persecuted even after they are released," she said.
"Now, I know that many in China, not just in the government, but in the population at large resent or reject our advocacy of human rights as an intrusion on sovereignty. But as a founding member of the United Nations, China has committed to respecting the rights of all its citizens. These are universal rights recognized by the international community."
The 2011 Annual Report of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China detailed the conditions of Chen's confinement and treatment by Chinese authorities.
"Hu Jia, a human rights and environmental advocate, and Chen Guangcheng, a self-trained legal advocate who publicized population planning abuses, were released from prison this year only to face, along with their families, onerous conditions of detention and abuse with little or no basis in Chinese law," the report said. "In Chen's case, authorities kept him and his wife under extralegal house arrest and allegedly beat them after video footage of their conditions was smuggled out of the house and released on an overseas Web site."
The State Department's 2010 Human Rights Report on China alleges that Chen's arrest and three year imprisonment was trumped up and politically motivated.
"On September 9, blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng was released after completing a prison sentence of three years and four months on politically motivated charges of ‘disrupting traffic,'" the State Department paper stated. "Since his release, Chen, his wife, and his mother have been under house arrest and prevented from communicating with others. Chen was not allowed to seek medical attention for a gastrointestinal condition he developed in prison."
Two top Obama administration officials said today that the diplomatic initiative to end the violence in Syria, led by U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, "is failing."
Under intense questioning during Thursday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, both Kathleen Hicks, the current deputy under secretary of defense for policy, and Derek Chollet, National Security Council senior director for strategy, said that the Annan plan was headed toward collapse and that new options for confronting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were being prepared.
Asked by the committee's ranking Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, if Assad had complied with the six points of the Annan plan for Syria, which charts a path away from violence toward political negotiations, Chollet acknowledged that violence is actually increasing.
"Do you believe the Annan plan has succeeded or failed?" McCain asked both officials.
"I would say it is failing," Chollet said.
"I would say it is failing and that Annan himself is extremely worried about the plan," Hicks concurred.
Annan lamented reports of increased violence Wednesday but said he still wanted to increase the number of monitors on the ground.
"If confirmed, this is totally unacceptable and reprehensible," said Annan."Equally, a credible political process is required if we are to sustain any long-term calm on the ground."
As The Cable reported last week, Chollet was added recently to the senior leadership of the Syria policy team and is coordinating the interagency process to look for a "Plan B" for U.S. policy for if and when the diplomatic initiatives break down.
Several times during the hearing, McCain complained that the United States was not leading in Syria, waiting for others to request more assertive action and hiding behind the excuse that there was no international consensus on the way forward.
"My view is that the United States is leading diplomatically," said Hicks, pointing to the Friends of Syria group of countries that meets periodically to discuss the issue as well as repeated action at the U.N. Security Council.
"Actually, we have not led the Friends of Syria, at least according to the Friends of Syria, because I have met with them, so that's not a fact," McCain said.
The Pentagon is planning for the possibility that the U.S. military might be called upon to participate in a mission to establish safe zones along the Turkey-Syria border, according to Hicks.
"We are doing a significant amount of planning for a wide range of scenarios, including our ability to assist allies and partners along the borders," she said.
But Chollet said that Turkey has not yet requested a discussion within NATO about setting up safe zones inside Syria, which would require military support. He added that if Turkey did request such a discussion, NATO would be obliged to take up the matter.
"I am unaware of any official or any serious discussions for that matter about how NATO might help Turkey in that regard," Chollet said.
McCain said that expanding the U.N. observer mission, which only has 15 people on the ground right now, would likely not solve the problem. He referred to Thursday's Washington Post editorial, "Where U.N. monitors go in Syria, killings follow."
The editorial noted reports that the Assad regime is sweeping into villages and towns as soon as the monitors leave, killing civilians and punishing those who are suspected of cooperating with the U.N. mission.
McCain was scolding and sometimes sarcastic about what he regards as a feckless U.S. Syria policy.
"I'm glad to hear that we are playing such a ‘leadership role'," McCain said. "I can guarantee you nobody in the Middle East thinks that. I can guarantee you that this is a shameful situation where people are being slaughtered. We are talking about economic sanctions and diplomatic sanctions. We should be helping these people."
Hicks has been nominated to be principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, succeeding acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, and Chollet has been nominated to be assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, succeeding Sandy Vershbow, who is now NATO's deputy secretary-general.
On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Alan Juppe raised the idea of intervening militarily against the Assad regime in Syria and said that the Security Council might have to consider a Chapter 7 resolution, which could authorize the use of force. "We cannot allow the [Assad] regime to defy us," he said.
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In a speech introducing U.S. President Barack Obama today, Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel called on the world to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from committing atrocities against civilians.
At a ceremony at Washington's Holocaust museum, Wiesel compared Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the villains who perpetrated the murder of millions of innocent civilians during World War II and asked why America and the international community didn't do more to stop the bloodshed. He then compared the world's inaction then to its failure to stop Assad and Ahmadinejad now.
"It could have been prevented. The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures in 1939, ‘40, ‘41, ‘42. Each time, in Berlin, Geobbels and the others always wanted to see what would be the reaction in Washington and London and Rome, and there was no reaction so they felt they could continue," Wiesel said.
"So in this place we may ask: Have we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power? How is it that the No. 1 Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad is still a president? He who threatens to use nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish state."
"Have we not learned? We must know that evil has power. It is almost too late," he said. "Preventative measures are important. We must use those measures to prevent another catastrophe. And when other communities are threatened by anyone, we must not allow them to do what they intend doing."
Wiesel's speech was reminiscent of another speech he made at the Holocaust museum in 1993, at the opening of the complex, when he called on then President Bill Clinton to take action to stop the atrocities against civilians in Bosnia.
Similarly, that speech came at a time when the Clinton administration was resisting getting entangled in a foreign civil war but was under growing pressure to intervene.
"Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something," Wiesel told Clinton then. "I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done."
In his own remarks, Obama touted the fact that his administration determined that the prevention of mass atrocities was a core national security interest of the United States and listed several bureaucratic changes the government was making to address the problem. His board to examine the problem meets today for the first time.
Obama touted his administration's efforts in South Sudan, Ivory Coast, Libya, and Uganda, pledging to extend the limited deployment of U.S. military advisors to help track down remnants of the Lord's Resistance Army. But Obama said that governments are not wholly responsible for preventing mass atrocities.
"You don't just count on officials; you don't just count on governments. You count on people mobilizing their conscience," Obama said. "'Never again' is a challenge to nations. It's a bitter truth: Too often the world has failed to halt the killing of innocents on a massive scale and we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save."
When Obama spoke about Syria, he said the United States would continue increasing diplomatic, political, and economic pressure on the Assad regime, but said the U.S. commitment to end atrocities "does not mean we intervene militarily every time there is an injustice in the world."
"The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up. So with partners and allies we will keep increasing the pressure so that those who stick with Assad know that they are making a losing bet."
Obama announced new financial sanctions against Syrian and Iranian leaders who use information technology to suppress civilian dissent, barring those guilty from entering or doing business in the United States.
"In short, we need to do everything we can to prevent these kinds of atrocities, because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your own people," Obama said. "Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing."
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
The White House is unhappy with the options it's been given on Syria and is searching for a new strategy for removing President Bashar al-Assad, The Cable has learned.
"There was a fundamental decision made at the highest level that we need a real Syria policy with more options for the president," one administration official with knowledge of the internal deliberations said. "Our allies were coming back to us and saying ‘What's your next move?,' and we were forced to admit we didn't have one."
The new push includes adjustments in personnel handling the portfolio. Before March, National Security Council Director Steve Simon headed up the internal interagency process. Now, multiple officials confirm that NSC Senior Director for Strategy Derek Chollet has been added to the leadership of the Syria policy team and has been coordinating the interagency process for several weeks. Simon, Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, State Dept. Special Advisor Fred Hof, and Ambassador Robert Ford are still very active on the Syria portfolio.
Simon, Feltman, and Hof have been traveling all week and will be with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris Thursday. There she will attend an ad-hoc meeting of foreign ministers where "core" members of the Friends of Syria group will confer on next steps.
Chollet, the former deputy to Anne-Marie Slaughter at the State Department's Policy Planning shop, has also been nominated to be the next assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, replacing Sandy Vershbow, who is now deputy secretary general of NATO. Chollet has taken on the day-to-day management of the interagency process while he awaits confirmation.
New options are now being considered internally, including another discussion of setting up buffer zones inside Syria, one administration official confirmed. The administration has also authorized direct contact with the internal Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and at least one State Department official has met with the FSA's nominal leaders in Turkey.
The rethink comes eight months after Obama explicitly demanded the Syrian leader's removal, saying, "The time has come for President Assad to step aside."
His administration is still struggling to come up with a way to make that call a reality.
There's a growing consensus inside the administration that the violence in Syria is not abating and that multinational diplomatic initiatives such as the plan put forth by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan are not convincing Assad to enter into a political process to transition to democracy, much less yield power and step down.
Clinton hinted Wednesday that fresh options are under discussion.
"We are at a crucial turning point," Clinton said, speaking from Brussels. "Either we succeed in pushing forward with Kofi Annan's plan in accordance with the Security Council direction, with the help of monitors steadily broadening and deepening a zone of non-conflict and peace, or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered."
The potential shift in U.S. policy predates the Annan plan, however.
Following a failed effort to convince Russia and China to endorse a resolution condemning Assad in February and the subsequent attempts to convince Russia to play a more constructive role following Vladimir Putin's election to the presidency in March, top levels of the Obama administration began exploring other options, according to multiple U.S. officials, congressional officials, and experts briefed on the discussions.
One administration official said that the hope that Russia could be convinced to reign in Assad has now faded, as has the notion that Turkey and the Arab Gulf states would be willing to bankroll the Syrian opposition and even arm the FSA while the United States largely confined itself to a diplomatic role.
The administration's position had been to look the other way while Arab states armed the Syrian opposition, but pledges of aid by Gulf states have not materialized and the Turkish government, which has committed to an anti-Assad position and is hosting the FSA, is waiting for the United States to chart a clear way forward.
"They are not thinking two steps ahead. That's why there is a demand for a plan B," the administration official said, referring to the White House. "The position they took at the last Friends of Syria meeting is not sustainable."
The United States has pledged $25 million in humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and communications equipment to the internal opposition. But lawmakers who met with internal opposition leaders last week said that they hadn't gotten that assistance.
"The most stunning, unsettling conclusion I drew from the leaders of the Free Syrian Army was that they have essentially got no help from anyone. They are literally running out of ammunition while Assad's forces are being resupplied by Iran and Russia," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable in an interview.
Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spent their Senate recess on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border, meeting with Turkish officials, FSA leaders, and refugees.
"What they want us to do is to lead. They want us to lead the Friends of Syria, who have given them increasingly sympathetic rhetoric but not the wherewithal to defend themselves," he said.
The Syrian internal opposition is buying weapons and ammunition on the black market at exorbitant prices and claims that large parts of the Syrian military are demoralized but are unwilling to break with the government until they see the opposition has real international support.
"They are all waiting for the U.S. to say ‘We're in this,'" Lieberman said.
There was at least one State Department official inside the McCain-Lieberman meeting with leaders of the FSA, Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh and Col. Riad al-Asaad, two U.S. officials confirmed. The FSA leaders asked the United States to provide RPGs, anti-aircraft guns, and ammunition. The FSA leaders also said they have proof that the Assad regime is using helicopter gunships to attack civilians in the city of Idlib, as apparently shown in this YouTube video.
Turkish officials told McCain and Lieberman that they were willing to let weapons flow over their borders and consider other more aggressive steps to help the internal Syrian opposition, but that they won't do so unless Washington leads the way.
The Turks told the senators there are currently 25,000 registered Syrian refugees in southern Turkey, although the registrations have not kept pace with the flow of refugees across the border so the actual number could be much higher. The Turks also said that if the refugee total tops 50,000, they will require help.
"They Turks want American leadership and they know American leadership is totally absent. The Turks say they may -- if this flood of refugees continues -- they may need international assistance," McCain said. "Every place we talked to, they want American leadership. It's just disgraceful that they haven't acted so far."
The administration official explained that the White House does not want to become so heavily involved in the Syria conflict, for example by directly arming opposition fighters, because it puts the United States on the hook for their success and would probably require increased levels of commitment as the conflict drags on.
"They've got this half-pregnant position that is offensive to the sensibilities of the people on the ground and confusing to the Turks," the official said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
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The State Department is getting ready to decide if Egypt has done enough to earn its $1.5 billion in U.S. aid for this year, and one leading human rights organization is telling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the answer is no.
"Amnesty International USA is deeply concerned about the ongoing repression of the Egyptian people by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt," the advocacy group wrote in a Wednesday letter to Clinton. "Given the human rights violations in Egypt, the US State Department cannot in good faith certify to the US Congress that the Egyptian government is protecting human rights."
Clinton is in charge of determining whether or not the Egyptian government has met the requirements spelled out in the last congressional appropriations bill as prerequisites for getting the $1.3 billion in annual military aid and another $250 million or so to promote democracy and civil society in Egypt. The law mandates that Clinton certify Egypt is proceeding on the road to a democratic transition, maintaining its commitments under its peace treaty with Israel, and "implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law."
The president can waive those requirements based on national security grounds if he wants.
"We urge you not to make such a certification, and we also oppose any waiving of this certification requirement," the Amnesty International letter states. "Making such a certification would undermine the brave struggle of the Egyptian people for a society founded on respect for human rights and the rule of law. Waiving the certification requirement would forfeit a key form of pressure for the advancement of human rights."
Specifically, Amnesty International opposes the subset of military aid that puts weapons, ammunition, and vehicles in the hands of security forces that have already used such items in human rights violations
We're told that although the State Department is technically in charge of this certification, other agencies are involved in the decision-making process and the Pentagon is pushing internally for at least some of the aid to go through.
Officials and lawmakers threatened to cut the aid to Egypt during the first round of the NGO crisis in January, when the Egyptian government raided several American funded NGOs and charged Americans with crimes for working at those NGOs. Even though those Americans have been allowed to leave Egypt, the Egyptian government's assault on its own civil society continues, Amnesty says.
"The ongoing trial of NGO staff on spurious charges is just one incident in a broader pattern of the new Egyptian regime continuing the old Mubarak practice of muzzling civil society," the group's letter continues.
Amnesty also points out that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which temporarily holds executive power in Egypt, has not rescinded emergency security laws, has continued to perpetrate violence against peaceful protesters, is still trying civilians in military courts, and has worked to exclude women from political participation.
"Furthermore, we call on the State Department to cease the funding, transfer, licensing, or sale of weapons, ammunition, military equipment, and military vehicles that can be used by Egypt's government to suppress human rights," the letter reads. "Any such funding derived from the U.S. Foreign Military Financing program should be halted immediately."
Top administration officials, leading lawmakers, and GOP presidential candidates have all weighed in on Sen. John McCain's proposal to launch U.S.-led airstrikes to halt the violence in Syria, but there is still no consensus on the costs and benefits of entangling the U.S. military in another armed conflict.
"Just as was the case with Libya, there is a broad consensus among regional leaders and organizations on the preferred outcome in Syria: Assad and his cronies must go. There is not, however, a consensus about how this goal could be achieved," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) said at Wednesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Levin didn't say whether he was for or against a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria, but he warned of the risks and talked about the possible impact on the region.
McCain was more clear, repeating his call for foreign air power to be used against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, and calling for the immediate arming of the Syrian opposition -- hopefully with international cooperation from Arab partners and European allies.
"It is understandable that the administration is reluctant to move beyond diplomacy and sanctions. Unfortunately, this policy is increasingly disconnected from the dire conditions on the ground in Syria, which has become a full state of armed conflict," McCain said.
He urged Panetta to remember his time as White House chief of staff during the NATO intervention in Bosnia and quoted President Bill Clinton as saying at the time, "There are times and places where our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war and where we can defend our fundamental values as a people and serve our most basic strategic interests. There are still times when America and America alone can and should make the difference for peace."
McCain also quoted CENTCOM chief Gen. James Mattis, who testified Tuesday that "Assad is clearly achieving what he wants to achieve" that his military campaign is "gaining physical momentum on the battlefield." Mattis also noted that Assad's downfall would be "the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years."
In his testimony, Panetta clearly ruled out any unilateral military action by the United States in Syria, but he left the door wide open to a multilateral mission inside Syria at some later date. Yesterday, President Barack Obama said that no option in Syria has been taken off the table.
"We are reviewing all possible additional steps that can be taken with our international partners to support the efforts to protect the Syrian people, to end the violence, and ensure regional stability, including potential military options, if necessary," Panetta said. "Currently, the administration is focusing on diplomatic and political approaches rather than military intervention."
"We need to have a clear legal basis for any action that we take. For us to act unilaterally would be a mistake," Panetta said. "Can it happen today? Can it happen now? No. It's gonna take some work; it's going to take some time. But when we do it, we'll do it right. We will not do it in a way that will make the situation worse. That's what we have to be careful of."
Dempsey said the Pentagon has planned for several possible military actions in Syria, including delivering humanitarian relief, imposing a no-fly zone, conducting maritime interdiction, establishing humanitarian corridors, and executing limited air strikes. He said the planning was at a "commander's estimate level of detail," and that there had been briefing to the National Security Council staff but not the president directly.
"As you know, we're extraordinarily capable and we can do just about anything we're asked to do," Dempsey said. "The ability to do a single raid-like strike would be accessible to us. The ability to do a longer-term sustained campaign would be challenging, and would have to be made in the context of other commitments around the globe."
Dempsey also confirmed elements of The Cable's Tuesday story on Syria, including the fact that Russia continues to arm the Syrian regime, including with advanced air defense systems.
Panetta said he believed that NATO should start debating the issue of a military intervention in Syria. That discussion so far has not begun in Brussels, according to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Panetta also said the Pentagon will not begin planning for a Syria intervention in detail until directed to do so by the president.
"I don't think there's any question that we're experiencing mass atrocities there," Panetta added.
Yesterday, several top Republican politicians declined to go along with McCain's call for airstrikes on Syria now, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
In a short interview Tuesday, McCain said that didn't bother him one bit.
"I couldn't care less," McCain said. "I know the difference between right and wrong. I know that people are being slaughtered as we speak."
"I refer back to Bosnia and Kosovo. Under President Clinton, we acted although there were Republicans strongly opposed to that. I think it turned out well."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who joined McCain's call for airstrikes along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), told The Cable Tuesday that he preferred a multilateral military intervention in Syria over a unilateral strike.
"The Arab League is the right vehicle," said Graham. "If they request air support I'm willing to be part of the team. But I want the Arab League and the international community to be deeply involved and I want it to be to stop the slaughter."
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration is moving to provide direct assistance to the internal opposition in Syria for the first time, marking a shift in U.S. policy toward a more aggressive plan to help oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Last week, a group of senior Obama administration officials met to finalize a package of options for aiding both the internal and external Syrian opposition, to include providing direct humanitarian and communications assistance to the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable. This meeting of what's known as the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council set forth a new and assertive strategy for expanding U.S. engagement with Syrian activists and providing them with the means to organize themselves, but stops short of providing any direct military assistance to the armed opposition.
For now, riskier options, such as creating a no-fly zone in Syria, using U.S. military force there, or engaging directly with the Free Syrian Army, are all still off the table. But the administration has decided not to oppose, either in public or in private, the arming of the rebels by other countries, the officials said.
"These moves are going to invest the U.S. in a much deeper sense with the opposition," one administration official said. "U.S. policy is now aligned with enabling the opposition to overthrow the Assad regime. This codifies a significant change in our Syria policy."
The package of options will be debated by cabinet-level officials at what's known as a Principals Committee meeting as early as this afternoon, the two officials said. The principals could endorse the entire package or make some changes, the officials said, although the package does have the consensus of the interagency coming out of last week's Deputies Committee meeting.
The administration is planning to greatly expand its interactions with the external Syrian opposition, led by the Syrian National Council, as well as with internal opposition bodies to include Syrian NGOs, the Local Coordinating Councils, and the Revolutionary Councils that are increasingly becoming the de facto representation of the Syrian opposition. The Free Syrian Army works with these councils, but the administration is not ready to engage the armed rebels directly out of concern that they are still somewhat unaccountable and may have contacts with extremist elements.
As part of the new outreach, the State Department and USAID have been tasked with devising a plan to speed humanitarian and communications assistance to the internal Syrian civilian opposition, working through State's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) office. There is no concrete plan yet as to how to get the goods into Syria if the Assad regime doesn't grant access to affected areas.
"We're leaving State and USAID to work that out. That's the million-dollar question. We're working on that now," the official explained.
Meanwhile, the administration wants to bolster the new defense committee established by the SNC last week, hoping to solidify that body's prominence as the contact point for coordinating military and technical assistance to the rebels, if a decision is taken later to move in that direction. The FSA has rejected the SNC's defense committee as being part of its chain of command, but for now the Obama administration sees the SNC as a more credible organization with which to explore options to potentially provide military aid.
"The prevailing narrative is enabling the transition while keeping options open for reaching out to the armed opposition," the administration official said. "There is recognition that lethal assistance to the opposition may be necessary, but not at this time."
At last month's initial Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that arming the Syrian rebels was "an excellent idea," though there are conflicting reports as to whether and to what extent Saudi weapons and cash were already flowing into the country.
In preparation for the next Friends of Syria meeting in Turkey later this month, the Obama administration has decided not to openly oppose direct military assistance to the rebels as long as it comes from another country, not the United States, one of the administration officials said.
"The decision has been made at the next Friends of Syria meeting to not oppose any proposals to arm the FSA and we're not going to publicly or privately message on that," the official said. "We're not going to publicly or privately tell the Friends of Syria not to do this."
Inside the administration, there is still a consensus that U.S. military intervention in Syria is not wise at this time and there are still voices expressing hope that political transition could take place in Syria without all out civil war.
"It's more about what could be accomplished by intervening. So many questions haven't been answered," another administration official said, expressing the widespread internal uneasiness about involving the U.S. military in yet another war in the Middle East. "There's a chance we could get embroiled in a conflict. What does that do to our preparedness for other contingencies?"
Some in the administration still hold out hope that the Russians can be persuaded to play a more helpful role in Syria. But two officials confirmed that Russian arms deliveries to Syria are ongoing and one administration official said that the latest shipment included large amounts of advanced anti-aircraft missile systems, which are meant to help Syria repel any attempt to establish a no-fly zone.
"What that says is that the Russians are doubling down on Assad. They're preparing for the next step, which is the internationalization of the conflict," one administration official said.
For the critics of Obama's Syria policy, these moves represent a step in the right direction but still fall short of what is needed for the United States to halt the violence.
"I am encouraged the Obama administration is exploring steps to provide direct assistance to Syrians inside their country, but the incremental measures reportedly under consideration still do not come to grips with the fundamental reality in Syria, which is that Bashar al-Assad, equipped and resupplied by Iran and Russia, is now waging an outright war against the Syrian people, who are outmatched, outgunned, and urgently in need of decisive international intervention," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable today.
Lieberman, along with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) came out Monday in favor of a U.S.-led intervention in Syria to begin immediately.
"To me this should begin with medical and military assistance for the opposition, including tactical intelligence and weapons, and ultimately should include targeted airstrikes against Assad's bases and forces," Lieberman said. "The United States should help organize such support for the Syrian opposition, but it should be international and include our concerned allies in the Arab League, the GCC, NATO, and the EU."
Lieberman, McCain, and Graham will all have a chance to question the administration on these new moves Wednesday when the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joints Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment on the administration's internal deliberations.
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Airstrikes against Syria are tempting but ultimately not a good idea, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) told The Cable today, reacting to the Monday call for airstrikes from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), also first reported here.
It's not easy these days to be more hawkish than Ros-Lehtinen, but that's where McCain ended up today after he called for the United States to lead an international military intervention in Syria to halt the killing of civilians by President Bashar al-Assad.
"Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower," McCain said Monday. "To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country."
We caught up with Ros-Lehtinen, who has been vocally opposed to any outreach to the Assad regime since 2009, on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference, where she had just finished her appearance on a panel calling for more Iran sanctions.
Ros-Lehtinen told us she wants the United States to do more to stop the bloodshed there, but active military involvement at this juncture was just a bridge too far.
"Senator McCain's heart is always in the right place. He was right on Egypt and Libya. But I believe that we've got to get our allies involved and get them committed," she said. "So my heart agrees with him, but my head says no."
Ros-Lehtinen said the American people, following decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that seem to finally be winding down, are war weary.
"The American people and the constituents that I represent, they are cautious about getting involved in another military operation," she said. "I understand the humanitarian issues involved... But I hear people saying, ‘Who's going to enforce the no-fly zone? Who's going to do all of this? Is it always the U.S.?'"
Attacks on Syria now could also create a "domino effect" that could lead to a hot war with Iran, which considers Syria a client state, Ros-Lehtinen warned.
"Senator McCain has been right, but I worry the Syria operation may be harder because of its tie-ins to Iran and what will Iran do militarily," she said.
She said her committee will mark up a new Syria sanctions bill she co-sponsored with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) March 8. The bill imposes mandatory sanctions against persons that transfer or retransfer goods or technology that can aid Syria's efforts to obtain WMDs and their delivery systems. Further, the legislation mandates extensive sanctions, including asset freezes and a travel ban, on senior officials of the Syrian regime.
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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.
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Fifteen foreign NGO workers were allowed to leave Egypt Thursday in what U.S. officials said was a positive step toward the resolution of a simmering crisis. But all sides warn that the crisis is still far from being resolved.
The Egyptian government removed the travel ban on foreign employees of several Cairo-based NGOs that were raided last December, allowing 8 Americans, 3 Serbs, 2 Germans, 1 Norwegian, and 1 Palestinian to speed to the Cairo airport and fly out Thursday. The Americans include Sam LaHood, director of the International Republican Institute and son of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood. Other American- funded NGOs -- including the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House -- have been harassed and had their staffs charged with crimes. Several Egyptian NGOs have also been targeted.
"We are very pleased that the Egyptian courts have now
lifted the travel ban on our NGO employees. The U.S. government has provided a
plane to facilitate their departure and they have left the country. They are
currently en route home," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday.
But she indicated that the United States and Egypt still have some differences to iron out.
"The departure of our people doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs," Nuland said. "We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process, and we will keep working with the Egyptian government on these issues."
Behind the scenes, the administration and several unlikely allies in Congress have been scrambling in recent days to urge the Egyptian government to produce some tangible progress on the issue before the Americans were dragged into Egyptian courts for trial and before the U.S. Congress moved to cut off Egypt's $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid, $1.3 billion of which goes to the Egyptian military.
According to officials and staffers close to the issue, the bulk of the credit for the progress thus far goes to the administration and first of all Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, who has been working furiously to resolved the crisis in Cairo. Other key officials involved were Brooke Anderson, the National Security Council chief of staff, who was the White House point person on the issue, and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns. The Justice Department and State Department Counselor Harold Koh have also been heavily involved, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey visited Cairo earlier this month and discussed the issue at length.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met twice with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr on the issue last weekend, once on the sidelines of the Somalia conference in London and once on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria conference in Tunis. The State Department also sent a delegation of lawyers to Tunis, an official said on background basis.
According to sources close to the negotiations, in the end the key Egyptian figures who facilitated the deal to were Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Justice Minister Mohamed Abdel Aziz Ibrahim. In fact, U.S. officials believed they finalized the outlines of a deal with those two leaders last week, whereby the judge presiding over the NGO trials would lift the travel ban when the trials opened on Feb. 26.
When the time came, that presiding judge refused to follow through, according to sources, and Ibrahim stepped in to remove him from the case, effectively placing Ibrahim himself in charge of the decision. Ibrahim then lifted the travel ban. The U.S. side agreed to pay $5 million in "bail" money as part of the arrangement.
Two Republican senators who rarely have any nice words about the administration's foreign policy, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), also pitched in. They traveled to Cairo last weekend with Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and John Hoeven (R-ND) and met with a series of Egyptian interlocutors, including Tantawi and representatives of Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The FJP, which holds the largest share of seats in the Egyptian Parliament, issued a public statement on the heels of the McCain-Graham visit, which said the party was unhappy with the current NGO law in Egypt, a relic of the Mubarak era. The FJP statement acknowledged that the foreign NGO workers had played a constructive role in Egypt over the years and described the prosecutions of the NGO workers as "politically motivated."
In a statement Thursday, the four U.S. senators acknowledged the Muslim Brotherhood's cooperation. "We are encouraged by the constructive role played over the past week by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Their statement of February 20 was important in helping to resolve the recent crisis," the senators said.
The American lawmakers had help from the Senate floor, where McCain and Graham were working hard this week to prevent a vote on an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that would have cut off all U.S. aid to Egypt immediately. McCain and Graham successfully prevented the amendment from reaching the Senate floor, but were unsure how long they could continue to do so before affecting other Senate business. This created a sense of urgency that was communicated directly to the Egyptians.
David Kramer, president of Freedom House, said in an interview today that the FJP statement was important because it allowed the SCAF and elements of Egypt's civilian government to lift the travel ban without fearing a domestic political backlash.
"It provided political cover to the authorities that if they took the step they took today, the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn't attack them in the press," he said.
But Kramer emphasized that the government's persecution of NGOs is ongoing. The cases against the Americans haven't been dismissed, and the SCAF has failed to provide an open and transparent system for domestic civil society to operate.
"No Egyptians got on a plane today, just the foreigners," Kramer noted. Several Egyptian Freedom House staffers are still charged with crimes. "This is a very important first step, but there are many steps along the way here. We have to get the investigations closed down. We have to be allowed to reopen and engage in our activities, like we were doing before. The pressure needs to be maintained."
"Today's action helps take away one element of tension. It wasn't helpful to have the focus be on Americans imprisoned in Egypt," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch. "That was taking the focus away from the real problem, which is the Egyptian government's assault on its own civil society."
The threat of a cutoff of U.S. aid to Egypt still remains, Malinowski noted. That prospect was always based on the most recent U.S. appropriations bill, which requires Secretary Clinton to certify that Egypt is making progress on, among other things, protecting freedom of association and moving toward true democracy.
"This is not enough for Hillary Clinton to certify progress under that law, although it might make it easier for her to use her national security waiver," Malinowski argued. A decision by Clinton could be put off until April, he added.
But the crisis has at least suggested that Congress and the Islamists in the new Egyptian legislature can work together, despite their differences in outlook.
"The Muslim Brotherhood will be the leading organization politically. It is up to them to create an environment where the world feels welcome," Graham said on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon. "Maybe we've learned our lesson, that you can't just have partnerships without basic principles. And so, we look forward to working with the Egyptian parliament and people."
The State Department has begun coordinating with Syria's neighbors to prepare for the handling of President Bashar al-Assad's extensive weapons of mass destruction if and when his regime collapses, The Cable has learned.
This week, the State Department sent a diplomatic demarche to Syria's neighbors Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, warning them about the possibility of Syria's WMDs crossing their borders and offering U.S. government help in dealing with the problem, three Obama administration officials confirmed to The Cable. For concerned parties both inside and outside the U.S. government, the demarche signifies that the United States is increasingly developing plans to deal with the dangers of a post-Assad Syria -- while simultaneously highlighting the lack of planning for how to directly bring about Assad's downfall.
Syria is believed to have a substantial chemical weapons program, which includes mustard gas and sophisticated nerve agents, such as sarin gas, as well as biological weapons. Syria has also refused IAEA requests to make available facilities that were part of its nuclear weapons program and may still be in operation.
The State Department declined to provide access to any officials to discuss the private diplomatic communication on the record, such as the author of the demarche Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman. In a meeting with reporters earlier this year, Countryman expressed confidence that the United States knows where Syria's WMD stockpiles are, but warned that they could become a very serious security issue for Syria and the region going forward.
"We have ideas as to the quantity and we have ideas as to where they are," Countryman said. "We wish some of the neighbors of Syria to be on the lookout... When you get a change of regime in Syria, it matters what are the conditions -- chaotic or orderly."
Today, in response to inquiries from The Cable, a State Department official offered the following statement:
"The U.S. and our allies are monitoring Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. These weapons' presence in Syria undermines peace and security in the Middle East, and we have long called on the Syrian government to destroy its chemicals weapons arsenal and join the Chemical Weapons Convention," the State Department official said. "We believe Syria's chemical weapons stockpile remains under Syrian government control, and we will continue to work closely with like-minded countries to prevent proliferation of Syria's chemical weapons program."
The demarche made four specific points, according to other U.S. officials who offered a fuller account to The Cable. It communicated the U.S. government's recognition that there is a highly active chemical warfare program in Syria, which is complemented by ballistic-missile delivery capability. It further emphasized that that any potential political transition in Syria could raise serious questions about the regime's control over proliferation-sensitive material.
Third, the State Department wanted Syria's neighbors to know that should the Assad regime fall, the security of its WMD stockpile -- as well as its control over conventional weapons like MANPADS (shoulder-fired rocket launchers) -- could come into question and could pose a serious threat to regional security. Lastly, the demarche emphasized that the U.S. government stands ready to support neighboring countries to provide border-related security cooperation.
"It's essentially a recognition of the danger to the regional and international community of the stockpiles that the regime possesses and the importance of working with countries, given the potential fall of the regime, to prevent the proliferation of these very sensitive weapons outside of Syria's border," one administration official said. "It's an exponentially more dangerous program than Libya. We are talking about legitimate WMDs here -- this isn't Iraq. The administration is really concerned about loose WMDs. It's one of the few things you could put on the agenda and do something about without planning the fall of the regime."
The administration is also working closely with the Jordanians on the issue. A Jordanian military delegation was at the Pentagon Thursday to meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
In addition to the danger of proliferation, there is a concern that Assad could actually use his WMDs if his situation becomes desperate.
"The WMD program is in play now, and that's important because it highlights the innate danger that the existence of this regime poses to U.S. security and regional interests," the administration official said. "[The demarche] puts Syria's neighbors on notice and it reflects the recognition that a dangerous Assad regime is willing to do anything to save its own skin. If they are willing to kill the country to save the regime, they might be willing to do a great deal more damage throughout the region."
Some officials inside and outside the administration see the WMD activity as helpful, but lament that such a high degree of planning is not taking place on the issue of how to precipitate the downfall of the Assad regime as quickly and as safely as possible.
Over 70 countries met in Tunis today to develop a unified message on the transition of power in Syria and urge the Assad regime to allow humanitarian access. The Saudi delegation actually walked out of the meeting, complaining of "inactivity" and urging the international community to arm the Syrian opposition.
The Obama administration has consistently rejected calls by the Syrian National Council and others to prepare for a military intervention in Syria and no real strategy exists internally to force Assad from power, another administration official said.
"Our strategic calculus can't be solely about what comes after Assad without taking a hard look at how to bring about Assad's downfall as safely as possible," said this official. "The reality is, at some point, there will be a recognition you can't plan for a post-Assad scenario without planning how to shape the downfall itself. You can't separate the two."
Concern about a gap in planning for how to oust the Assad regime is shared by some in Congress, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who issued a statement today urging the administration to start directly aiding the Syrian rebels and protecting Syrian civilians.
"Unfortunately, speeches and meetings by themselves will do nothing to stop the unacceptable slaughter in Syria, which is growing worse by the day," the senators said. "We remain deeply concerned that our international diplomacy risks becoming divorced from the reality on the ground in Syria, which is now an armed conflict between Assad's forces and the people of Syria who are struggling to defend themselves against indiscriminate attacks."
In her prepared remarks in Tunis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she supported more sanctions on the Assad regime but she declined to endorse any direct help to the Syrian opposition without the consent of the Syrian government, saying only, "We all need to look hard at what more we can do."
Fifty-six leading conservative foreign-policy experts wrote an open letter Friday to U.S. President Barack Obama calling on him to directly aid the Syrian opposition and protect the lives of Syrian civilians.
"For eleven months now, the Syrian people have been dying on a daily basis at the hands of their government as they seek to topple the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. As the recent events in the city of Homs-in which hundreds of Syrians have been killed in a matter of days-have shown, Assad will stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power," wrote the experts.
"Unless the United States takes the lead and acts, either individually or in concert with like-minded nations, thousands of additional Syrian civilians will likely die, and the emerging civil war in Syria will likely ignite wider instability in the Middle East."
The letter was organized jointly by the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, both conservative policy organizations in Washington, D.C. Signees included Max Boot, Paul Bremer, Elizabeth Cheney, Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, John Hannah, William Inboden, William Kristol, Michael Ledeen, Clifford May, Robert McFarlane, Martin Peretz, Danielle Pletka, John Podhoretz, Stephen Rademaker, Karl Rove, Randy Scheunemann, Dan Senor, James Woolsey, Dov Zakheim, and Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council.
The letter calls on Obama to immediately establish safe zones within Syrian territory, establish contacts with and provide assistance to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), give communications and logistical assistance to the Syrian opposition, and enact further sanctions on the Syrian regime and its leaders.
The letter comes one day before the first "Friends of Syria" contact-group meeting in Tunisia and on the same day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton in Washington.
On Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the government sponsored violence in Syria, but the letter argues that multilateral efforts to protect civilians in Syria have thus far failed.
"The Syrian people are asking for international assistance," it reads. "It is apparent that American leadership is required to ensure the quickest end to the Assad regime's brutal reign, and to clearly show the Syrian people that, as you said on February 4, 2012, the people of the free world stand with them as they seek to realize their aspirations."
Read the full letter after the jump:
Russia and Iran are continuing to send arms to the Syrian regime that can be used against protesters, a top State Department official said today.
"Iran is resupplying Syria and through Syria has supplied weapons to Hezbollah," said Tom Countryman, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, at a Wednesday morning breakfast meeting of the Defense Writers Group in Washington.
Countryman's bureau plays a major role in monitoring international compliance with nonproliferation and arms control rules. He declined to go into specifics on what arms Iran and Russia are giving the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but he confirmed that both countries are still supplying arms that can be used to attack civilians and opposition groups inside Syria, who are engaged in an increasingly bloody struggle with the government.
"We do not believe that Russian shipments of weapons to Syria are in the interests of Russia or Syria," he said.
According to Countryman, the Iranian weapons being funneled through the Syrian government to Hezbollah are not being used by Hezbollah inside Syria, but are being transferred to Hezbollah groups inside Syria's neighbor Lebanon.
Countryman also said the U.S. government is working with allies to try to get a handle on the stores of conventional, biological, and chemical weapons inside Syria, to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands if and when the Assad regime collapses.
There are "tens of thousands" of MANPADS - shoulder-fired missile systems -- in Syria and nobody really knows where they all are, Countryman said. Unlike Libya, Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, so there is no official reporting on its store of those weapons, but the effort to locate them is underway.
"We have ideas as to the quantity and we have ideas as to where they are," Countryman said. "We wish some of the neighbors of Syria to be on the lookout... When you get a change of regime in Syria, it matters what are the conditions -- chaotic or orderly."
He also commented on the news that Iran has sent a letter to EU High Representative Catherine Ashton proposing a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries, a letter that Ashton has already said does not contain enough new concessions to justify a new meeting.
"This would be a good day for [Iran] to answer a letter sent four months ago," Countryman said, but what Iran really needs to do is open up fully to IAEA inspectors and directly address all of the questions about its nuclear program.
"There is a path forward where Iran can pursue peaceful use of nuclear energy," he said.
Former National Security Council Senior Director Dennis Ross argued in a New York Times op-ed today that the window for diplomacy with Iran is now open again because of the pressure wrought on Iran by international sanctions.
"The Obama administration has now created a situation in which diplomacy has a chance to succeed," wrote Ross. "It remains an open question whether it will."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford took to the U.S. Embassy Damascus Facebook page Thursday to explain the reasons for the closing of the embassy Feb. 6 and to offer new evidence that the Syrian regime is attacking civilians.
"First, like people around the world, my colleagues and friends are watching the video coming out of Homs and some of the other Syrian cities in the last days with horror and revulsion," Ford wrote. "I hear the devastating stories about newborns in Homs dying in hospitals where electricity has been cut and when we see disturbing photos offering proof that the regime is using mortars and artillery against residential neighborhoods, all of us become even more concerned about the tragic outcome for Syrian civilians." [emphasis in the original]
"It is odd to me that anyone would try to equate the actions of the Syrian army and armed opposition groups since the Syrian government consistently initiates the attacks on civilian areas, and it is using its heaviest weapons," he continued, in a not-so-veiled reference to Russian and Chinese diplomats, who made that very argument before vetoing the Arab League backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 4.
Ford also went into the reason behind the embassy closing, which he said was the most taxing day in his multi-decade diplomatic career.
"I left Damascus with immense sadness and regret-I wish our departure had not been necessary, but our Embassy, along with several other diplomatic missions in the area, was not sufficiently protected, given the new security concerns in the capital," he wrote. "We and those other embassies requested extra protection measures from the Syrian government, given the danger to both our citizens and the Syrian citizens that worked with and near us. Our concerns were not addressed."
Ford said he remains the ambassador and will work in Washington "to support a peaceful transition for the Syrian people." [italics original]
"We and our international partners hope to see a transition that reaches out and includes all of Syria's communities and that gives all Syrians hope for a better future," Ford wrote. "My year in Syria tells me such a transition is possible, but not when one side constantly initiates attacks against people taking shelter in their homes."
UPDATE: The State Department released a set of declassified satellite photos Friday as evidence the Syrian military is attacking civilians. Those photos can be found here.
U.S. Department of State
The Syrian people have the right to fight back against their government and the international community has several options to help them in that regard, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Saturday.
As the tempo and intensity of Bashar al-Assad regime's violence against civilian accelerates and the U.N. Security Council remains paralyzed, the United States and its partners are planning their next steps. As a press conference Saturday night at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, several members of the U.S. congressional delegation laid out several ideas under consideration for protecting the Syrian people.
"There are many different options as to how we can do that," said Kerry. "There are the early beginnings of a civil war taking place in Syria. And if the government is going to kill randomly, people deserve the right to defend and fight for themselves."
Kerry declined to specify what steps Washington might take to directly support the internal Syrian opposition or the Free Syria Army, the ragtag defectors who have taken up arms against Assad, but he warned the Syrian government and its supporters Russia and China that the United States would not stand idly by.
"Syria is not Libya," Kerry said. "But nobody should interpret that statement to suggest that it means that Syrian leaders can rely on the notion that they can act with impunity and not expect the international community to assist the Syrian people in some way."
He also insisted that there will be another round of negotiations on a Security Council resolution regarding Syria, despite the vetoes by Russia and China that followed last week's efforts to build world consensus on the way forward.
"I'm confident this will be revisited," Kerry said. "Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and Ambassador [to the U.N. Susan] Rice are prepared in a competent way to embrace Russian and Chinese concerns, but not in ways that would undermine the ability of the people in Syria to have their voices heard or to be oppressed or create a longer stalemate."
He continued: "I think that balance can be found, I'm confident it will be found. There will be another shot at the effort but it is really important for Russia and China, critical leaders in the world today [to join us]. They have an opportunity in the next days to step up and were inviting them to do so. I hope they will join us on such a critical statement with respect to rights of innocent people."
Speaking at the press conference in Munich Sunday night, congressional delegation leaders John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) laid out more specific ideas on how the international community can help the people of Syria.
"There's a lot we can do to provide moral support and to provide material support, along with Turkey and other nations, in assisting these people with medical care and other assistance," McCain said. "I do not know how Russia and China can represent themselves as members of the world community and still oppose a resolution that would help bring this bloodletting to an end."
Lieberman said he hopes some sense could be talked to the Russians and the Chinese and that the Security Council would work on another resolution.
"But if that doesn't work I don't think we can just stand by. I hope the international community and the U.S. will provide assistance to the Syrian Free Army in the various ways we can. I hope we will work with Turkey and Jordan to create safe havens on the borders of those two countries with Syria," Lieberman said. "What's happening in Syria today is exactly what we got involve in Libya to stop from happening.... I understand Syria is more complicated, but one choice we don't have is just to stand back and let the government kill people who are fighting for their own freedom."
Speaking on Monday in Bulgaria, Clinton laid out the most specific ideas to date about how the Obama administration plans to move forward on the issue.
"So what do we do? Well, faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future. We have to increase diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime and work to convince those people around President Assad that he must go, and that there has to be a recognition of that and a new start to try to form a government that will represent all of the people of Syria," she said.
The Obama administration will seek new regional and international sanctions against Syria and will try to expose those who are still funding and arming the regime, Clinton said. She also promised to increase contacts with the Syrian opposition and provide humanitarian relief to the Syrian people.
Clinton didn't, however, promise another run at the Security Council, indicating only that more diplomatic efforts were on the way.
"Over the coming days, I will be consulting closely with our allies and partners in Europe, in the Arab League, and around the world," she said. "So we will be consulting with the foreign minister here and others about what we can do to rescue this deteriorating situation before it's too late."
MUNICH - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave opposing public speeches Saturday on what should be done in Syria, and then took their dispute behind closed doors in a heated bilateral meeting, in advance of Saturday's U.N. Security Council action in New York.
"As a tyrant in Damascus brutalizes his own people, the U.S. and Europe stand shoulder to shoulder," Clinton said in her speech at the 2012 Munich Security Conference. "We are united, alongside the Arab League, in demanding an end to the bloodshed and a democratic future for Syria. And we are hopeful that at 10 AM eastern standard time in New York, the security council will express the will of the international community."
Well, the 10 AM deadline has come and gone, but State Department officials insist the U.S. is committed to holding a vote on the latest draft resolution on the situation on Syria today, despite persistent Russian concerns over the text, which were outlined by Lavrov in his speech only minutes after Clinton left the stage.
Lavrov said that Russia stands by the Syrian people but not the "armed groups" in Syria that he alleged were contributing to the violence. He said Russia would not agree to any resolution that amounts to outside interference or presupposes the political outcome in Syria other than supporting a dialogue between the two sides.
"The problem is, the peaceful protesters have our full support, but they are being used by the armed groups, who create trouble. And this is reaching quite dangerous proportions," Lavrov said.
Lavrov said Russia had two main problems with the current draft of the resolution. He said the current draft resolution "left the door open to military intervention to the outside," because it does not include a Russian drafted statement that would explicitly say a military intervention is not authorized.
He also said the draft resolution seeks to prejudge the results of a national Syrian dialogue because it refers to the Arab League Initiative's report and says the process should follow the Arab's League's schedule for resolution of the transition of power in Syria.
"If this resolution is adopted and Assad doesn't go, we asked the Americans and the Europeans ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said.
"It's not a serious policy," he insisted.
Lavrov heavily criticized the Arab League monitoring mission and defended Russian arms sales to the Syrian regime, which continue to this day. Lavrov said the U.N. charter does not allow interference in internal domestic affairs and that without Russian support, any plan devised in the security council would not be viable.
The Cable asked Lavrov whether Russia was concerned about ending up on the wrong side of history in Russia by supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"We are not friends or allies of Assad," Lavrov responded, "We try to stick to our responsibilities as permanent members of the security council and the security council doesn't by definition engage in the internal affairs of states, it's about maintaining international peace and security."
The Cable followed Lavrov out of the conference hall and into his bilateral meeting with Clinton. Clinton was joined in the meeting by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher, NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder, and Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
A senior State Department official said the meeting went longer than planned, 45 minutes, and two thirds of that time was spent discussing the U.N. Security Council situation regarding Syria.
"The secretary and the foreign minister had a very vigorous discussion," the official said. "The secretary made clear that the U.S. feels strongly that the U.N. Security Council should vote today."
The official would not going into the details of the bilateral discussion on Syria but said it's safe to assume that Clinton and Lavrov did not resolve their differences over the way ahead.
"Foreign Minister Lavrov did not dispute the urgency of the situation and the action now moves to New York," the official said.
The Russian government is following the path of the deposed regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar al-Qaddafi and is setting itself up for a fall from power, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in an exclusive interview with The Cable.
"You need to listen to what Russian leaders themselves are saying. They say ‘We are not Libya, we are not Egypt, Russia will not go down this road,'" Saakashvili said. "I've heard that from other leaders before. I heard it from Soviet leaders. And once you start saying those things it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and then you start to do certain things and to not allow certain things, and those are exactly the kind of actions that promote further sliding down this road [toward losing power]."
Not only is Russia denying the desires of its own people by suppressing protests and real democracy, it is now leading the opposition to the wave of popular revolutions that the world witnessed over the past year, said the Georgian president, who fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008. The latest and greatest example, he said, is Russia's support for the brutal Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad.
"Syria stands as a symbol," Saakashvili said. "[The Russians] fully identify themselves with Libya but they thought that in Libya they were a fooled into action. And now with Syria they think that if Syria falls, it's the last bastion before Moscow. And this is exactly the kind of attitude that will bring problems closer home to Moscow. It's not going to help Syria in any way, but it's certainly damaging Russia a lot."
The anticipated return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency later this year is significant because his term will be marked by opposition to real reform both inside and outside Russia, Saakashvili said.
"Unlike Westerners who think in terms of superficial symbols that he's returning, the middle class in Moscow knew that he never went away," said Saakashvili. "It's not about returning Putin to the presidency, it's about what he said. And what he said was ‘I'm returning because I should stop any attempt to reform and crack down on any mode of reform,' and that's what the middle class in Russia heard."
U.S. engagement with Moscow is useful and efforts to continue the "reset" policy should continue, but all the signals from Russia indicate that it is returning to a pre-reset policy, the Georgian president added. He made the case that Russia showed real flexibility during its drive to get into the World Trade Organization in 2011, but now that it has achieved that goal, its attitude has reverted to one of confrontation.
One example is Russia's constantly stoking the rumor that the United States is planning to deploy missile defense elements to Georgia, something Saakashvili said simply isn't true.
"Vladimir Putin is talking about this all the time. Either he is strongly misguided or he's looking for reasons to say nasty things," he said.
Just minutes before his interview with The Cable, speaking in front of a packed audience in the sparkling new auditorium of the United States Institute of Peace headquarters in Washington, Saakashvili contrasted the reactions of Russia and Turkey to the Arab Spring.
"Two radical different attitudes have emerged, offered by two specific regional powers. On one hand, the Russian Federation reacted with outrage and panic to the Arab Spring and tries to do anything they can to prevent any international support to the democracy movements anywhere. On the other hand, Turkey asserts itself as the model for the post revolutionary countries," he said.
"On the one hand, the government of Vladimir Putin desperately tries to hold back the progress of history. On the other hand, the government of Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan tries to embrace the revolutions of the world. Two very different prime ministers," he said. "It's not a coincidence that Russian influence is decreasing while Turkish leadership is growing in the region every day."
Saakashvili also talked about Georgia's struggles following its separation from the Soviet empire, and the lessons he might offer to new governments undergoing similar difficulties.
"Georgia's experience does not provide a transferable model for many countries that have known or will sooner or later know progressive uprising. There was no freedom textbook for us, and no textbook for our friends was ever written. The real revolution occurs after the cameras from CNN, BBC, and the others have left the country. It consists of the long and difficult process of reform that follows," he said.
"This is a lesson and a message of hope. There is no future for global powers playing against the will of their own people."
The Cable also asked Saakashvili for his opinion of actor Andy Garcia's portrayal of him in the movie Five Days of War, the 2011 film about the Russian-Georgian conflict.
"I only saw parts of it, but what I know is that my English was a little better than his and that was very reassuring," he said.
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
On Thursday, the Senate Banking Committee will officially start work on a new sanctions bill against Iran, and senators are set to add even more sanctions to the bill as it goes through the legislative process -- including measures that directly target President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Banking Committee will mark up the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, named after committee heads Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), who will lead Thursday's proceedings. The bill will pile on more punitive measures against Iran's energy, shipping, and mining sectors, while punishing a broader range of Iranian government officials for their involvement in human rights violations.
President Barack Obama's administration is still working to implement the last round of Iran sanctions that was signed into law, which included the Menendez-Kirk sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran that were added to the defense authorization bill in December by a 100-0 vote. But the Senate has no intention of giving the administration a breather, and Thursday's mark-up is the beginning of a new and aggressive push to tighten the noose on Tehran and further damage the Iranian economy.
"Iran's continuing defiance of its international legal obligations and refusal to come clean on its nuclear program underscore the need to further isolate Iran and its leaders," Johnson said in statement about the bill.
The bill would sanction anyone who provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment -- as well as jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed related assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation would also formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.
Johnson and Shelby's bill expands sanctions to cover companies involved in joint ventures with Iran that aid the country's energy sector, targets any Iranian joint ventures involving uranium mining, authorizes the administration to target corporate executives of sanctioned firms, and requires U.S. companies to report to the SEC business they have with any Iranian firms that could fall under sanctions.
The Banking Committee bill is a scaled-down version of the Iran, Syria, North Korea Sanctions Consolidation Act, sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Scott Brown (R-MA). The Syria and North Korea provisions in that bill were left out of the Banking Committee's version so there wouldn't be any jurisdictional confusion between the Banking Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee.
Several senators are set to offer amendments on Thursday to strengthen the Johnson-Shelby bill even further. Although negotiations are still ongoing, a list of the amendments in the queue as of Wednesday afternoon was obtained by The Cable.
Among the amendments that could be considered in committee on Thursday is an amendment by Menendez, offered on behalf of himself and Kirk (who is in Chicago recovering from a stroke) that would impose immigration restrictions on Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, and a host of other senior Iranian government officials. The amendment would also trigger visa restrictions on Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, although those restrictions could be waived for U.N. meetings in New York.
A separate amendment by Menendez and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), also offered on behalf of Kirk, would sanction banks with officers on the board of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), the organization that handles the bulk of international electronic bank transfers, if SWIFT doesn't stop processing transactions for Iranian banks.
Another Menendez amendment would require the Treasury Department to determine whether the Iranian National Oil Company and the Iranian National Tanker Company are tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If they are, those two companies would then be sanctioned as well, which could wreak further havoc on Iran's economy.
"This is a reminder that there are still more stones left unturned and there are still more ways to increase the pressure on an already extraordinarily pressured Iranian economy," a senior Senate aide told The Cable. "In bipartisan fashion, the Senate is moving to do just that."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.