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
A new set of sanctions against Iran is pending in the Senate, but the Obama administration refuses to say whether or not it supports the legislation as negotiations with Tehran resume.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said today that he still intends to move as soon as possible to pass the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, named for Finance Committee heads Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), that was approved by the committee in February. The bill would 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.
Before the latest Senate recess, Reid attempted to pass the bill by unanimous consent, but Republicans objected because several senators want to offer amendments to strengthen the bill. Lawmakers from both chambers and both sides of the aisle want the bill to go through the regular legislative process so that changes can be made before passage, but Reid says the bill should be passed as is.
Reid told reporters today that his staff would be meeting today "to see if something could be worked out," regarding a way forward for the legislation. (After the meeting, a Reid spokesman told The Cable that "nothing" was worked out at today's meeting and there is no definitive schedule for moving ahead with the bill.)
"I think the best thing to do is to move forward with the bill that was reported out of committee on a bipartisan basis, unless we can get agreement from basically everyone," Reid said. "Each day that goes by without Iran feeling more of our sanctions, that's too bad for the world and helpful to Iran. We need to move forward on this as soon as possible."
The Obama administration hasn't said anything positive or negative about the legislation, even though it has been vocal about other Iran sanctions bills being debated in Congress. Administration officials met with Iranian negotiators as part of the P5+1 group in Turkey last weekend and more talks are scheduled for next month in Baghdad.
If the administration supports the new sanctions, it risks upsetting the new negotiations just as they are beginning. If the administration doesn't support the new sanctions, it leaves them open to GOP allegations of weakness towards Iran in the midst of the presidential election season.
National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment today on whether or not the White House supports quick passage of the Johnson-Shelby bill. Late last month, a senior administration official told The Cable, "We're not just taking a position on that particular bill at this point."
House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told The Cable Monday that he supports moving forward with the bill quickly.
"I think it's perfectly appropriate to keep up pressure with the sanctions. I think you've got to keep ramping up the pressure," he said. "If we want to add to the options the president has, I think that's a good idea."
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) said today that without the administration's green light, the bill probably would not move quickly through Congress.
"Unless the administration advocates for that, I think it's less likely," he said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) came out strongly this week for a bill to sanction Russian human rights violators and urged his committee counterpart John Kerry (D-MA) to stop stalling action on the bill.
At the March 27 SFRC business meeting, Lugar read aloud a long statement in support of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- 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. Several senators, now including Lugar, have said publicly that unless the Magnitsky bill can become law, they will oppose the repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that currently stands as the only U.S. law specifically aimed at holding the Russian government accountable for its human rights record.
Without repeal of Jackson-Vanik, the United States can't grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and U.S. businesses can't take full advantage of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization. But the senators believe that the Magnitsky bill is needed to ensure the Russian government is not let off the hook for its deteriorating record on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
"Mr. Chairman, several committee members have urged committee consideration of the Magnitsky Rule of Law Act. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Senator [Ben] Cardin (D-MD) for his hard work on the Magnitsky Act. This bill has been pending before the Foreign Relations Committee for nearly a year, and we held a hearing on the bill last December. My office has worked with Senator Cardin's staff to develop a revised version of the bill, which I strongly support. Therefore, I would look forward to the opportunity for the committee to consider this legislation at the next business meeting," Lugar said.
The next SFRC business meeting should be in mid-April. If the committee approves the bill, which is likely, it would then be sent to the Senate floor. Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee is working on a bill to grant Russia PNTR status and repeal Jackson-Vanik. Finance committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MO) traveled to Russia last month on the issue and a finance committee staff delegation leaves for Russia March 31.
If both bills are reported out of their respective committees successfully, supporters of the Magnitsky Act would then advocate for the two bills to be joined together or voted on in rapid succession, so that they would be sent to the president's desk as a package.
The administration opposes the Magnitsky bill and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul recently called it "redundant" because the State Department has already issued visa restrictions for the officials it believes are guilty in the Magnitsky case. But leading Russian opposition figures argue that the repeal of Jackson-Vanik without some replacement human rights legislation would undermine the fight for human rights in Russia.
Behind the scenes, the administration is negotiating with Cardin, the bill's main sponsor, on changes to the Magnitsky bill that would actually expand it to cover all countries around the globe, not just Russia, two congressional aides close to the issue told The Cable.
The benefit of such a change for the administration would be that the bill could not be seen as targeting Russia only. The risk, according to aides, is that such a change could create conflicts with several other governments whose officials might falls under the bill's definition of human rights violators.
Publicly, McFaul has called for Jackson-Vanik to be replaced by a new democracy fund for Russia. He has said the administration requested to use leftover money -- about $150 million -- from an expired Russia enterprise fund to set up the new democracy initiative.
According to several congressional aides, that request is being held up by two Republican offices, Lugar's and the office of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Lugar supports the democracy fund, although not exactly as the administration envisions it. Ros-Lehtinen wants the money to be returned to the U.S. Treasury.
Either way, supporters of the Magnitsky bill on Capitol Hill aren't keen on the idea and want to wait and see whether their drive to join the Magnitsky bill to the PNTR bill can succeed.
"Momentum is building for Magnitsky and people aren't really interested in setting up something new," a senior GOP Senate aide said. "We want to see where Magnitsky goes."
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has decided to use a national security waiver to allow over $1.5 billion of U.S. aid to Egypt, bypassing Congressional restrictions even while the Egyptian government's assault on NGOs in Cairo continues.
The State Department hadn't planned to announce the waiver decision today. "We're still expecting a decision this week, but she hasn't made it yet," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Thursday's press briefing. But apparently Clinton had decided, because Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the author of the restrictions, got a call from the State Department today notifying him of the waiver. In a statement Thursday afternoon, he announced the waiver and criticized Clinton's choice.
"I am disappointed by this decision. I know Secretary Clinton wants the democratic transition in Egypt to succeed, but by waiving the conditions we send a contradictory message," Leahy said. "The Egyptian military should be defending fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, not harassing and arresting those who are working for democracy. They should end trials of civilians in military courts and fully repeal the Emergency Law, and our policy should not equivocate on these key reforms."
Leahy's office has been urging Clinton not to use the waiver authority that Leahy himself added to the most recent appropriations bill. Now that the waiver has been exercised, Leahy is arguing that, just because the restrictions on the aid have been removed, that doesn't mean the U.S. government necessarily has to deliver the aid -- at least not all of it up front.
"Now that Secretary Clinton has decided to use the law's waiver authority, she should use the flexibility the law provides and release no more taxpayer funds than is demonstrably necessary, withholding the rest in the Treasury pending further progress in the transition to democracy," said Leahy.
We were told by multiple Congressional sources that the State Department is considering delaying part of the $1.3 billion of military aid and most of the $250 million in economic aid, at least for a while. The Pentagon has been urging Clinton to release some of the military aid because existing contracts with U.S. defense firms were dependent on the funds, multiple Congressional aides said.
Leahy's House counterpart, House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX), also came out against Clinton's decision to waive the restrictions today and said that she had been told it was in fact a partial waiver.
"I am disappointed by the timing of the Secretary's decision to issue a partial waiver of restrictions on FMF funds for Egypt while the Egyptian government's transition is ongoing," Granger said in a statement to The Cable. "The State Department needs to make the case that waiving the conditions is in the national security interest of the United States. I expect the Secretary to follow the law and consult the Appropriations Committee before any funds are transferred."
Critics of providing further military aid to the Cairo government have raised concerns over the actions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which allegedly played a role in the December raids on several NGOs in Cairo, including three funded by the United States: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House.
A number of Americans who worked for NGOs in Egypt were temporarily banned from leaving the country and charged with crimes, but they were eventually allowed to depart earlier this month. Prosecutions against both the foreign workers and the local staffs of the NGOs continue.
The non-military aid is under particular scrutiny because it would be given largely to the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation, which is run by Fayza Abul Naga, the official who is suspected to have played a lead role in the raids and the prosecutions.
"The decision to waive the conditions, partially or in full, on military aid sends the wrong message to the Egyptian government -- that U.S. taxpayers will subsidize the Egyptian military while it continues to oversee the crackdown on civil society and to commit human rights abuses," said David Kramer, president of Freedom House. "A resumption of military aid at this point also sends the wrong message to the Egyptian people -- that we care only about American NGO workers, not about the aspirations of the Egyptian people to build democracy."
Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, agreed with that assessment. The announcement of the waiver, he said, was "extremely disappointing, particularly as Egyptian and American organizations working to support Egypt's transition to democracy remain very much under threat."
The restrictions in the bill were conditioned on Clinton certifying that the Egyptian military is making progress on the transition to democracy, and that the Egyptian government is allowing freedom of expression and assembly. McInerney said the United States can still hold Egypt accountable for those promises.
"I very much hope, as Senator Leahy has expressed, that the administration will still elect to delay the disbursement of the majority of the fiscal year 2012 funds to Egypt's military until further progress in Egypt's transition to democratic civilian rule has been achieved," he said.
Not all senior lawmakers and officials connected with the issue are so eager to cut off U.S. funding to the Egyptian government. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of IRI, has been deeply involved in the issue and traveled to Egypt in the midst of the crisis.
He told The Cable in an interview that the aid served as a valuable form of influence that the United States must use carefully.
"We've got to weigh all the aspects of this issue, it's very complicated and complex. We want to be on the same page as the administration," he said. "In general, I think its two steps forward and one step back in Egypt. But there's also the overall issue of the delicate political situation in Egypt today."
Senate Foreign Relations Middle East Subcommittee Chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) told The Cable that the issue wasn't black and white, and that there should be a way to provide some aid while still keeping the pressure on Egypt to continue reforms.
"We've got to have a measure of accountability. But I think the idea of cutting off aid doesn't make sense," Casey said. "We just have to figure out a better way to make the aid conditional based on those measures of accountability, and I think we can achieve that. I think, in this case, it's a mistake to take an either/or approach."
UPDATE: Read Nuland's full Friday statement on the waivers after the jump:
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Fourteen people were arrested last Friday on the walkway outside the Sudanese embassy. While George Clooney stole all the headlines, Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) was also arrested and recounted the experience in an interview with The Cable.
"Sometimes no matter how serious the issue, unless you keep the public focused on it, really bad things can keep happening and even get worse," Moran said about what he called an act of "civil disobedience" to protest the Khartoum government's violence against innocent civilians in the Nuba Mountain and Blue Nile regions of Sudan.
"The North has conducted a scorched earth strategy. They've wiped out all their fields, they've forced them up into the mountains. They've got no food," Moran said. "And once the rainy season starts, which will be in about a month, that will be it, because you won't be able to get any convoys in. So they will starve to death. And that is kind of the idea."
Moran said the plan was always to get arrested, and the group alerted the DC metro police of their plan ahead of time. First, Clooney and others made speeches in front of the embassy. Then they proceeded up the walkway, which constituted trespassing. After refusing three police instructions to leave the embassy grounds, those who were willing to be arrested held their ground.
"We're just trying to say, look, these are hundreds of thousands of innocent people who should not be forced to suffer and die because of an irresponsible ruler and because of a world that looks away from it, that refuses to get engaged," Moran said. "I think it was the right thing to do, to try to bring the world's attention to a serious situation."
Along with Clooney, nine activists and four Congressmen were arrested. That group included Moran, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), Rep. John Olver (D-MA), Rep. Al Green (D-TX), Martin Luther King III, former head of the NAACP Ben Chavis, NAACP President Ben Jealous, Nick Clooney, activist Dick Gregory, former congressman and leader of United to End Genocide Tom Andrews, and Director of the Religious Action Center Rabbi David Saperstein, Moran said.
They were carted off in paddy wagons, processed and fingerprinted, stripped of their personal belongings, and put in a cell together for about 5 hours. They all pleaded guilty to trespassing, disturbing the peace, and refusing to obey a police order. They each paid a $100 fine and were released.
"We needed to get arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy, and since George was willing to do that we knew we would get some media coverage," Moran said.
That was the first time Clooney had been arrested, but Moran was arrested once before protesting on behalf of the people of Darfur, he said. Overall, he considered the mission a success.
"I think it worked," he said. "If we can get some attention focused on this real humanitarian crisis, then spending a few hours in jail and coming up with $100 in cash to bail ourselves out was well worth it."
So what do four congressmen, five activists, and a Hollywood star do in prison for 5 hours?
"We enjoyed talking about everything," Moran said. "There's nothing to read, so we talked, and we all got to know each other pretty well."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Four more senators joined the opposition to repealing the Jackson-Vanik trade sanctions law against Russia on Friday, unless that repeal is accompanied by a new law specifically targeting human rights violators inside the Russian government.
Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), and Roger Wicker (R-MS) wrote a letter Friday to Senate Finance Committee heads Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to let them know that they oppose Baucus's effort to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law unless it is replaced with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- 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.
Without repeal of the Jackson-Vanik law, U.S. businesses can't take full advantage of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, but the senators believe that the Magnitsky bill is needed to ensure the Russian government is not let off the hook for their deteriorating record on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
"In the absence of the passage of the Magnitsky legislation, we will strongly oppose the lifting of Jackson-Vanik," the senators wrote. "Human rights abuses in Russia are widespread and severe, and a legitimate area of focus for U.S. foreign policy. For this reason, what is urgently needed is not merely the elimination of Jackson-Vanik, but its replacement with legislation that is appropriately tailored to the contemporary human rights problems facing the people of Russia. That is precisely the role that the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act would service."
The opposition to a straight repeal of Jackson-Vanik now includes these four senators, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), large portions of the Washington human rights community, and leading Russian opposition figures such as Solidarity movement leader Boris Nemtsov. Those who support repealing Jackson-Vanik without any replacement human-rights legislation include the Obama administration, large sections of the business community, and the Russian government.
Moscow has already praised and promoted the officials accused of torturing Magnitsky for their investigation into the case, and has now begun retrying Magnitsky for criminal tax violations -- even though he is dead.
"While some in the Russian government may be upset if the United States adopts the Magnitsky bill, we believe most Russians will be happy to see us deny the most abusive and corrupt individuals in their country the ability to travel and move their ill-gotten gains overseas," the senators wrote.
UPDATE: A Baucus spokesperson sent in the following statemet regarding Baucus's position on human rights in Russia as it relates to the repeal of Jackson-Vanik:
Chairman Baucus certainly shares the concerns about the human rights situation and he is working with his colleagues to find the best ways to address them. He has met with democracy and human rights activists in Russia and heard directly from them that one way to help improve both democracy and human rights is to repeal Jackson-Vanik and pass PNTR to remove an anti-America propaganda tool and open Russia to transparency. And he has expressed willingness to consider other legislation as well.
YANA LAPIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
As troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad stormed the opposition-held city of Idlib Tuesday, Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) became the fourth U.S. senator to openly call for U.S. military intervention in Syria ... before he partially walked back those comments in an interview with The Cable.
"Senator, do you support a military intervention in Syria?" The Cable asked Brown in the hallways of the Capitol Building Tuesday.
"Well that's the million-dollar question," he said. "At what point do we do it? Is it 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 killed? At what point do we draw a line in the sand and get involved just based on the humanitarian [considerations] or just our belief that we are a great country and should be helping people?"
"We're at about 10,000 killed so far -- so what do you say?" we pressed.
"I'm at the point right now that I think we should handle it like we did with Libya: Get that coalition and go in and give the opposition a chance to regroup," he said.
"So you're for the U.S. getting involved in another international military intervention in Syria?" we asked. Then the Massachusetts senator appeared to have second thoughts.
"I'm still gathering information," Brown said. "I'm still asking for the appropriate briefings to see what we can do and what the limitations are and how this is different from Libya. And I'll have a more defined statement I think pretty soon."
Brown is not the only GOP senator grappling with the proper way forward in Syria, but other GOP lawmakers at least seemed to have their positions ready at their fingertips. Earlier Tuesday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) confidently told us that he doesn't believe the Syrian revolution is about "democracy."
In another Tuesday interview with The Cable, Senate Armed Services Committee member Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) said she supports increased international pressure on Russia and China but doesn't support U.S. military intervention at this time.
"Right now, I'm very concerned about what's happening in Syria," she said. "There are a number of legislative actions we could take against Russia to stop them from what they are doing."
As for arming the Syrian opposition, Ayotte said, "I think that's something that we should look at doing, but I also think there are other partners that might be in a position to do that, including the Turks."
Robert Giroux/Getty Images
President Barack Obama's administration will not support any human rights or democracy legislation in exchange for Congress repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law, which is preventing Russia from getting top trade status with the United States, the U.S. envoy to Moscow said today.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, the former NSC senior director for Russia and a key architect of the administration's "reset" policy with Russia, was in Washington today --along with all other U.S. ambassadors -- in advance of a huge conference at the State Department Tuesday. He made clear, in two separate speaking events, that the administration's top trade priority in 2012 is to repeal the Jackson-Vanik law, which has blocked Russia from getting Permanent Normal Trade Status (PNTR). However, the administration doesn't support any replacement for the law, such as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- 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.
Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to link the passage of the Magnitsky bill to the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was put in place in the 1970s to punish Russia for its treatment of Jewish would-be emigrants but now stands in the way of lifting U.S.-Russian trade restrictions. Last year, the State Department did quietly issue visa bans for the Russian officials linked to the case, and McFaul said that's enough.
"We believe that we can ban people from coming to this country that do grossly abusive things regarding human rights. And it was strengthened by a human rights executive order last August that we took to give additional authorities. So from our point of view this legislation is redundant to what we're already doing," McFaul said at a Tuesday morning event on Capitol Hill organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), a conservative policy organization. "We took this situation very seriously and we took action."
McFaul got into an impromptu debate at the FPI event about the Magnitsky Act with leading human rights advocates, and one of Magnitsky's original clients, Bill Browder. McFaul reiterated that the administration does not support financial sanctions on Russian human rights violators that go beyond the visa bans, and he said it's not helpful to name the names of the officials who are banned.
The Senate Finance Committee will take up the issue of Russia's PNTR status and the Jackson-Vanik law on Thursday. Committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) visited Russia last month and met with several senior Russian officials on the issue, including lame duck President Dmitry Medvedev.
"Jackson-Vanik from our position is a total no brainer. There's no upside to holding onto Jackson-Vanik right now. Zero. And viewed in human rights terms, there's no upside," McFaul said. "Jackson-Vanik should be terminated because there's no advantage in terms of the debate about democracy. There's no advantage in terms of human rights."
David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, talked at the event about the coordinated campaign by the Russian government to clamp down on democratization and human rights progress in Russia and to blame the current anti-government protests in Russia on the United States.
"Politically, in light of the environment in Russia, which has been deteriorating in Russia, to simply lift Jackson-Vanik without some replacement would be viewed in Moscow and Russian leadership as a sign of weakness on the part of the United States -- again, that we need this relationship more than they do," Kramer said. "And if we don't replace it, then we would, in their minds, be rewarding them despite their bad behavior by not going after them. To me, this has to be a package deal."
At a separate event this afternoon at the Petersen Institute for International Economics, McFaul again said that the administration would not support any human rights bill in exchange for repealing Jackson-Vanik, and made the case that Jackson-Vanik only hurts U.S. businesses.
"We're not going to have an argument about the diagnostics with anybody on Capitol Hill. We're not going to claim Russia's more democratic than you think. We're not going to get into that kind of argument. We'll just agree Russia has problems with these issues. But we disagree on the prescription," he said. "We don't believe that holding on to Jackson-Vanik in any way, shape, or form, advances the cause of democracy, human rights, or rule of law in Russia... there's no causal relationship."
McFaul is pushing for a new civil society fund, which would provide about $50 million in new money support NGOs there. The White House sent the plan to Capitol Hill last October, and McFaul says it is "stuck in Congress." We're told the request for funding is being held up by the office of Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).
"If you want to do something constructive, that's an area where we should be focusing on our attention, not on this weird linkage, like somehow holding Jackson-Vanik is going to make Russia more democratic or is going to help us with Syria," McFaul said. "I dare somebody to stand up today and tell me how not lifting [Jackson-Vanik] helps the cause of promoting rule of law, democracy, and human rights. We just don't see it that way."
McFaul also mentioned in both events the blog post published today by several Russian opposition leaders, including Alexey Navalny and Boris Nemtsov, calling for the repeal of Jackson-Vanik.
"At the end of the day, those who defend the argument that Jackson-Vanik's provisions should still apply to Russia in order to punish Putin's anti-democratic regime only darken Russia's political future, hamper its economic development, and frustrate its democratic aspirations," the opposition leaders wrote. "Jackson-Vanik is also a very useful tool for Mr Putin's anti-American propaganda machine: it helps him to depict the United States as hostile to Russia, using outdated cold-war tools to undermine Russia's international competitiveness."
FPI's Ellen Bork pointed out at the event that Navalny and Nemtsov both support passage of the Magnitsky act, although they didn't mention that in their blog post.
In response to a question from The Cable, McFaul declined to call the recent election of President-elect Vladimir Putin "free and fair," referring to State Department's statements on the election. He also denied accusations that the United States is financially supporting the protest movement, which he characterized as a healthy example of increasing Russian popular political participation.
"I wouldn't call it civil unrest; I would call it civil society renewal. This is not a movement that is seeking the violent overthrow of the current regime. They seek to engage in peaceful actions to reform the current system. That's different from other places around the world," McFaul said. "There are real politics in Russia again. The society is taking their constitutional rights more seriously and the state is responding to that."
Leading human rights activists see the government response to the protests in a harsher light.
"In the past few years, Russia has moved backwards not forwards... The trappings of democracy exist, elections happen," Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said at the FPI event. "But beyond those surface trappings, over the last few years, the Russian government has tried to weaken or dismantle every institution that might check the power of its officials or increase the power of its people."
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images
The Russian people and international observers may not see last Sunday's presidential election in Russia as legitimate, but President Barack Obama has now officially endorsed the return of Russian past and future President Vladimir Putin.
"President Obama called Russian President-elect and Prime Minister Putin to congratulate him on his recent victory in the Russian Presidential election," the White House said in a late Friday afternoon statement (read: news dump) about the Friday morning phone call between the two leaders.
"President Obama highlighted achievements in U.S.-Russia relations over the past three years with President Medvedev, including cooperation on Afghanistan, the conclusion and ratification of the START agreement, Russia's recent invitation to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and cooperation on Iran," the statement read. "President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed that the successful reset in relations should be built upon during the coming years."
Obama told Putin he looked forward to Putin's May visit to Camp David for the G-8 summit and the two talked about how they could benefit economically from Russia's joining the WTO, the statement explained.
That could be a reference to administration efforts to get Congress to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that prevents the U.S. from giving Russia permanent normal trade status. Some in Congress are resisting that because of Russia's deteriorating record on democracy, rule of law, and human rights.
At the end of the statement, the White House mentioned the crisis in Syria, in which the Russian government is arming the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue discussions on areas where the United States and Russia have differed, including Syria and missile defense," the statement read. "President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue their efforts to find common ground and remove obstacles to better relations."
The State Department, in their May 5 statement on the election, noted the concerns of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe about the election, including that it wasn't a level playing field to begin with, that government resources were used partisan purposes, and that there were procedural irregularities on the day of the election.
"We urge Russian authorities to build on these steps to ensure that the procedures for future elections will be more transparent," the State Department said. The White House statement made no mention of the problems with the election.
After Russia's Dec. 2011 parlaimentary elections, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called them "neither free nor fair." When Russian protesters took to the streets to protest those elections and Putin's return to the presidency, Putin publicly accused Clinton of inciting the protests.
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
For years, a slew of advocates - many of whom have been paid for their services -- have flooded U.S. airwaves on behalf of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime.
After months of difficult negotiations, the MEK has finally begun moving out of its secretive Iraqi home near the Iranian border, called Camp Ashraf. But the group's American advocates have now become a major obstacle in the international effort to move the MEK to a new home in Iraq and avoid a bloody clash with the Iraqi military, officials say.
U.N. special representative in Iraq Martin Kobler, with help from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and the State Department, has organized efforts to relocate the MEK to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport. The first convoy of about 400 MEK members arrived there last month. The second convoy of about 400 MEK members arrived Thursday at Camp Liberty, Reuters reported.
The United Nations and the U.S. government have worked tirelessly in recent months to avoid a violent clash between the MEK and the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which is determined to oust the MEK from Camp Ashraf, where more than 3,000 members of the group, many of them suspected to be armed, have lived for years. Two previous attempts by the Iraqi government to enter the camp resulted in bloody confrontations.
But the U.N. and the State Department's efforts have been made exponentially more difficult due to the MEK's surprisingly strong base of support in Washington. In recent weeks, retired U.S. officials and politicians -- many of whom admit to being paid by the MEK or one of its many affiliates -- have mounted a sophisticated media campaign accusing the U.N. and the U.S. government of forcing the group to live in subhuman conditions against its will at Camp Liberty, an accusation U.S. officials say is as inaccurate as it is unhelpful.
"This is tough enough without paid advocates making it worse," one official told The Cable.
"Camp Liberty: A Prison For Iranian Dissidents in Iraq," reads a March 3 full-page ad in the New York Times, leveling the surprising accusation that the former U.S. military base is unfit for human occupation. The ad quotes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani calling Camp Liberty "a concentration camp" -- a charge Giuliani made at an MEK-sponsored conference late last month in Paris. The ad also quotes former Democratic National Committee chairman and Vermont Governor Howard Dean, former Homeland Security secretary and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz trashing Camp Liberty.
However, according to an Obama administration official who works on the issue, it's actually the MEK that is trashing Camp Liberty -- literally. According to this official, the U.N. has reported that MEK members at Camp Liberty have been sabotaging the camp, littering garbage and manipulating the utilities to make things look worse than they really are. While there are some legitimate problems at the camp, the official admitted, the U.N. has been monitoring Camp Liberty's water, sewage, and food systems on a daily basis and the conditions are better than the MEK is portraying.
The New York Times ad is only the latest in a years-long, multi-million dollar campaign by the MEK and its supporters to enlist famous U.S. politicians and policymakers in their efforts to get the group removed from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations and resist Iraqi attempts to close Camp Ashraf, which the new government sees as a militarized cult compound on its sovereign territory.
The campaign has included huge rallies outside the State Department, massive sit-ins at congressional hearings, and an ongoing vigil outside the State Department's C Street entrance. MEK supporters there tout the support of a long list of officials, including Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, and former Sen. Evan Bayh.
The administration official told The Cable that, as delicate negotiations between the U.N., the United States, the Iraqis, and the MEK continue, the role of these often paid advocates is becoming even more unhelpful and potentially dangerous.
"The Americans who ought to know better and claim to be on the side of good solutions are really damaging it. Either they are too lazy or too arrogant to actually do their homework. They don't spend the time to learn facts, they just pop off. They accept the MEK line without question and then they posture," the official said. "We have a plan that has a chance to work and the Iraqis want it to work. The MEK ... it's not clear. And in this situation they are being badly advised by the people whose names appear in these ads."
"Whether the MEK wants a resolution or wants a confrontation is something we're still debating. It's that bad," the official said.
The relationship between the American advocates and the MEK leadership, led by the Paris-based Maryam Rajavi, has led both to pursue strategies that neglect the dire risks of sabotaging the move from Camp Liberty to Camp Ashraf, the official said. Rajavi is said to have created a cult of personality around herself and to rule the MEK as a unchallenged monarch.
"The not-too-stable Queen [Rajavi] hired a bunch of court flatterers to tell her that she's great, which is fine, except that she has now forgotten that these are hired court flatterers. She thinks they are actual advisors," the official said. "Meanwhile her wise counselors are being marginalized by those who are saying ‘Oh Queen, your magnificence will cause your enemies to fall on their knees.' And she's beginning to believe them."
"By enabling Rajavi to indulge her worst instincts and encouraging her to think she has more power and leverage she does, they may precipitate a crisis, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid," the official said.
Another example of the American advisors' unhelpfulness was the MEK's recent public call to be relocated en masse to Jordan, an idea the U.S. official said came from the group's American friends. There was just one problem: Nobody had asked the Jordanians.
"To announce it publicly as a demand without checking with the Jordanians is the sort of thing you do to destroy it," the official said. "Why the hell should the Jordanians buy trouble like this by giving these people an autonomous militarized camp?"
U.N. and U.S. officials had been hoping to keep discussions open with Jordan about the possibility of hosting some MEK members in the event of an emergency, such as a renewed outbreak of violence. But U.S. officials now think that the MEK's actions have made that much more difficult.
"Whoever advised them has done actual demonstrable damage to a possible humanitarian solution. They're not helping. It's remarkable," the official said.
The arrival at Camp Liberty Thursday of the second convoy may signal that the MEK is coming around to the realization that the Iraqi government will never allow it to stay at Camp Ashraf. But the U.S. official warned that the group may have more tricks up its sleeve.
"The MEK will delay, confuse, deny, and spin until faced with an imminent disaster, and then they give only enough to avoid that disaster," the official said. "And the problem is: If you play chicken enough, eventually you will get into a head-on collision."
JACQUES DEMARTHON/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.
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
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.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
If the international community gave the Syrian rebels arms, communications equipment, and intelligence, that would help speed President Bashar al-Assad's removal from power, the top U.S. military official in Europe said Thursday.
Navy Admiral James Stavridis, Commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, told the Senate Armed Services that NATO is not doing any "detailed planning" for ways to aid the Syrian opposition or protect Syrian civilians. But under intense questioning from the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Stavridis admitted he believed that giving material aid to the rebels would help them get better organized and push forward the process of getting the Assad to step down.
"Yesterday the secretary-general of NATO, Mr. Rasmussen, told The Cable, quote, ‘We haven't had any discussions about a NATO role in Syria and I don't envision such a role for the alliance,'" McCain said, referring directly to our Feb. 29 exclusive interview with Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"Is it true that NATO is doing no contingency planning of any kind with respect to Syria, including for the provision of humanitarian and medical assistance?" McCain asked Stavridis.
"We're not doing any detailed contingency planning at this point, senator, and there's a reason for that. Within the NATO command structure, there has to be an authorization from the North Atlantic Council before we can conduct detailed planning," Stavridis said. The North Atlantic Council is the body charged with making NATO policy decisions.
After getting Stavridis to confirm he believes the Syrian crisis is now an armed conflict between government and opposition forces, McCain then asked Stavridis if the provision of arms, communication equipment, and tactical intelligence would help the Syrian opposition to better organize itself and push Assad from power.
"I would think it would. Yes, sir," Stavridis replied.
McCain contrasted NATO's reluctance to intervene in Syria with previous NATO missions to halt massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) seconded that comparison at the hearing.
"This does remind me of experiences we had in Bosnia and Kosovo in the '90s," Lieberman said. "It actually took quite a while for us to build the political will, both here and in Europe, to get involved there. And while we were doing that, a lot of people got killed, and the same is happening in Syria now. I hope it doesn't take us so long."
Just down the hall from the SASC hearing, two top State Department officials were giving an entirely different take on the efficacy of arming the rebels. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration just doesn't think that arming the Syria rebels is a good idea.
"We've been very hesitant about pouring fuel onto a conflagration that Assad himself has set," Feltman testified Thursday. "So we're very cautious about this whole area of questioning and that's why we have worked with this international consensus on political tracks, on economic tracks, on diplomatic tracks, in order to get to the tipping point we were talking about earlier."
As Ben Smith in Politico reported Thursday, the Syria issue has divided Congress on traditional party and ideological lines -- lines that were muddled during the debate over intervention in Libya because of internal Republican disagreement. Most GOP senators and leading congressmen, along with all the GOP presidential candidates, are urging the Obama administration to begin directly aiding the Syrian rebels now.
Leading congressional Democrats, to the extent they have commented on the issue, have been more reluctant to get more involved in the Syria crisis. House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told reporters Thursday, "If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try. Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
"It is critical that we all proceed with extreme caution and with our eyes wide open," SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said at the Thursday hearing. "There are serious questions to be answered about the Free Syrian Army, but it is not too soon to think about how the international community could shape its thinking or encourage restraint."
The debate in Congress over aiding the Syrian rebels will ramp up next week, with a March 6 SASC hearing with Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis and a March 7 SASC hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden hosted a star-studded lunch at the State Department Tuesday in honor of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, with a Valentine's Day theme to boot.
The tables were adorned with red rose bouquets and the menu featured Chinese-American fusion creations by chef Ming Tsai, including a roasted sweet potato soup with crispy duck confit roulade, soy marinated Alaskan butterfish, and "eight treasured rice packet" with dried fruit and pork sausage. Dessert was a flourless bittersweet chocolate cake topped with cardamom ice cream.
In addition to Clinton and Biden, the roster of former and current officials and celebrities in attendance included Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brezinksi, Thomas Friedman, Chris Hill, Chas Freeman, Alan Greenspan, and Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Dianne Fienstein (D-CA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Bob Corker (R-TN). State Department officials at the event included Wendy Sherman, Bob Hormats, Kurt Campbell, and many others.
Your humble Cable guy's table included Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, former National Security Advisor Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, and State Department counselor Harold Koh.
Clinton opened up the event by alluding to the holiday theme.
"Because we so highly value our relationship and you're here on what we call Valentine's Day, which is a time that is for love but also friendship, and we are so delighted that we could invite many American friends who know China, work in China, have relations in China, here to this lunch honoring you," she said.
Biden joked about Xi's visit Wednesday to Iowa, where the future Chinese leader had spent some time living with a homestay family in the 1980's.
"Your visit to Iowa will ensure you more delegates than I received there when I ran for president," Biden joked. "And Lindsey Graham is happy that you didn't show up there in January, or you might have won the GOP primary as well."
Biden then got serious and talked about how the U.S.-China relationship "is literally going to help shape the 21st century."
He mentioned China's deteriorating record on human rights and said, "We see our advocacy of human rights as a fundamental part of our foreign policy and we see human rights as a key to the prosperity of all societies."
"We have been clear about our concern over the areas in our perspective where conditions in China have deteriorated and the plight of several individuals," Biden said, though he did not mention any dissidents by name. "We appreciate your response."
In his own speech, Xi said touted China's human rights record and promised that his country would continue to focus on the personal aspirations of its people. He did not mention any specific human rights achievements, however.
"China has made tremendous and well recognized achievements in human rights over 30 years since opening up," said Xi. ""The Chinese government will always put people's interest first and take seriously people's aspirations and demands."
He alluded to a "new and important consensus" achieved during his trip, without elaborating.
The mood in the room was friendly and many attendees who had interacted with Xi personally said that he was more personable and somewhat less guarded than his boss Hu Jintao. They said that Xi was being very careful to stay on script and not make any mistakes, but that they were cautiously optimistic the visit would establish some rapport between Xi and his high-level U.S. interlocutors.
The lunch began more than an hour late because Xi's previous meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, which had been scheduled for 45 minutes, lasted almost an hour and a half. Biden has met Xi before and traveled to China late last year as the latter's guest, but today was the first meeting between Obama and Xi.
In Obama's remarks after the meeting, he nodded to the issue of human rights when he said, "[W]e will continue to emphasize what we believe is the importance of recognizing the aspirations and rights of all people."
Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth, who met with Biden before the visit, was not impressed with the back and forth on the issue and wrote that the language the administration used was weaker than he would have liked.
"The Obama team didn't even
publicly mention Chinese dissidents by name, let alone meet with them before
the Xi Jinping visit. Bad signal," Roth tweeted.
"The Obama team already wasn't doing much for human rights in
Now it's not even saying much."
Biden and Xi also met this morning, and Xi met with some senior former officials last night for dinner at his hotel in Woodley Park. Tonight, Xi eats at Biden's residence before he takes off for Iowa and then Los Angeles, where we're told he will take in a Lakers game.
Xi made the final toast at Tuesday's lunch.
"I now propose a toast to the health of Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and to the remarkable development of U.S.-.China relations in the last 40 years and to even better relations in the next 40 years," he said.
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."
Both leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Cable that $1.3 billion of annual U.S. aid to the Egyptian military is in real jeopardy due to the Egyptian government's harassment of American NGO workers.
Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) both said on Tuesday that a withholding of military aid to Egypt was now on the table due to the Egyptian military's role in the Dec. 29 raids on several NGO groups in Cairo, including three U.S. government-funded organizations: the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Freedom House.
The anger in Washington at the Egyptian government reached a boiling point this week when it was revealed on Jan. 26 that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's son Sam LaHood, the head of IRI's Cairo office, had been barred from leaving Egypt by the government, along with five other U.S. citizens.
The issue has already led to a divorce between the Egyptian government and its Washington lobbyists. The lobbyists said they dumped the Egyptian government over the NGO issue, while the Egyptian embassy claimed it dumped the lobbyists in order to save money.
Both Levin and McCain are set to meet with a visiting delegation of high-level Egyptian military officers next week in Washington, and they both said they will deliver the message that U.S. military aid to Egypt is tied to this issue.
"They should know that this action on their part jeopardizes a normal relationship between us," Levin said in a brief interview on his way out of the Democratic caucus lunch. "They know that, and that includes the impact it could have on aid."
McCain, who happens to be the chairman of the board of IRI, said in his own after-lunch interview that U.S. military aid to Egypt is "certainly a topic that [the Egyptians] have put on the table."
"It's hard to believe. IRI and NDI worked throughout Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union and we helped them with democracy. They're like mechanics. They come in and tell you how to organize voters, how party registration works, and that kind of stuff. They're not advocates of anybody," McCain said.
McCain has been exchanging letters with his contacts in Egypt but there's been no progress yet, he said. "I've known [SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi for years, and many of the other members of the Egyptian military. It's one of the few benefits of old age," he said.
Freedom House put out a fact sheet on Tuesday, written by its manager of congressional affairs, Sarah Trister, which argues Egypt has not met the legal obligations for receiving the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid this year.
"Per the FY 2012 State and Foreign Operations Bill, before the administration can release the $1.3 billion in military aid for Egypt, it must certify that the government of Egypt is ‘supporting the transition to civilian government including holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.' At this point, it is clear these conditions are not being met," Trister wrote.
Moreover, the Freedom House fact sheet made the case that Egypt should not receive the $300 million it receives from the United States in economic and social assistance, mainly because this money goes through the Ministry for International Cooperation, which is led by the Egyptian official believed to be driving the NGO harassment: Fayza Abul-Naga.
"The ministry that receives this funding, the Ministry for Planning and International Cooperation, is headed by a Mubarak holdover who has been directing the assault against civil society," Trister wrote, referring to Abul-Naga.
Reuters reported Tuesday that the Egyptian Justice Ministry sent back a letter from the U.S. embassy requesting the Americans trapped in Cairo be allowed to leave.
The Washington Post ran an editorial on Tuesday criticizing the Egyptian military delegation for being tone deaf to the seriousness of the crisis, and calling on President Barack Obama's administration to use the military aid as leverage.
"The generals regard this funding as an entitlement, linked to the country's peace treaty with Israel. They appear to believe that Washington will not dare to cut them off, even if Americans seeking to promote democracy in Egypt are made the object of xenophobic slanders and threatened with imprisonment," the editorial said.
"Preserving the alliance with Egypt, and maintaining good relations with its military, is an important U.S. interest. But the Obama administration must be prepared to take an uncompromising stand. If the campaign against U.S., European and Egyptian NGOs is not ended, military aid must be suspended."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Last month, Barack Obama's administration resisted provisions codifying the right to detain prisoners indefinitely, arguing that putting such language into law was unnecessary and redundant. Now, the administration is using those very provisions to defend its detention of a suspected al Qaeda militant in federal courts.
The provision in question, Section 1021 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), "reaffirms the military's existing authority to detain individuals captured in the course of hostilities in accordance with the law of war." That authority was given to the administration in the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed by Congress after the 9/11 attacks. The Obama administration initially threatened to veto the defense authorization bill because it contained a stronger version of Section 1021, but then revoked its veto threat after House and Senate negotiators tweaked the language.
The provision nonetheless faced opposition from civil rights organizations and some senators, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), out of concern that it could be used to justify indefinite detention of anyone suspected of terrorism, including American citizens.
President Obama specifically criticized section 1021 in his signing statement on the day the defense authorization bill became law.
"Section 1021 affirms the executive branch's authority to detain persons covered by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note). This section breaks no new ground and is unnecessary. The authority it describes was included in the 2001 AUMF, as recognized by the Supreme Court and confirmed through lower court decisions since then," Obama wrote. "My Administration will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law."
Now, thanks to Brookings Institution scholar Benjamin Wittes, we learn exactly how the administration is interpreting that section of the law: It is using it to defend the indefinite detention of Musa'ab al-Madhwan, a Yemeni citizen who has been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for years.
"The government has filed its opposition to cert in the case of Al Madhwani v. Obama-a Guantanamo habeas case," Wittes wrote on his Lawfare blog. "Al Madhwani's cert petition seeks review of this DC Circuit opinion affirming his detention. That opinion, in turn, affirmed District Judge Thomas Hogan's earlier opinion. The government's argument is interesting because it explicitly invokes the new language in the NDAA."
In an interview, Wittes noted the irony of the administration using the legal provision it resisted in defending its arguments against Madhwani now, but said the administration had been consistent in how it defines the application of the authority to detain prisoners indefinitely.
"The administration says the provision is unnecessary and redundant and then this shows up in their brief, but merely as support of their interpretation of the prior law. There's no hypocrisy here," Wittes said. "It would be weird of them not to cite an on-point federal statute that supports their argument."
Still, one of the supporters of the provision in Congress, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), told The Cable Tuesday that the administration's embrace of his provision was disingenuous. "I guess it's a high form of flattery," McCain said.
Another sponsor of the provision, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), told The Cable Tuesday that although the administration strenuously opposed earlier versions of the provision, the administration didn't outright oppose the final version, despite the unenthusiastic signing statement. "I'm not at all surprised that they used a provision that they ultimately didn't oppose in their briefs," he said.
Responding to a call from advocacy groups, Mitt Romney's campaign has released a statement promising to protect "innocents" and prosecute human rights abuses by the Khartoum government in Sudan and what is now South Sudan.
"Mitt Romney recognizes that for too long far too many Sudanese have been victims of war crimes and other atrocities committed by the government in Khartoum and its proxies," the Romney campaign said in Tuesday statement. "In Southern Sudan, millions died as a result of ethnic and religious targeted killings during the long civil war. Among those brutally targeted were Christians and adherents of traditional African religions, Dinka, Nuer, and members of other ethnic groups. In Darfur, non-Arab populations have been and continue to be victims of a slow-motion genocide. And since independence of the Republic of South Sudan, Khartoum has committed a range of atrocities in border regions that have claimed countless lives and displaced hundreds of thousands."
The Romney campaign accused the Khartoum regime, led by President Omar al-Bashir, of inciting and arming rebel groups with the objective of undermining the South Sudanese government, stealing hundreds of millions of dollars of South Sudan's oil money, and impeding the flow of humanitarian assistance.
"Governor Romney is committed to protecting innocents from war crimes and other atrocities, ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches those desperately in need, holding accountable those leaders who perpetrate atrocities, and achieving a sustainable peace for all who live in Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan," the statement said.
The Romney campaign was responding to a call for support from the organization Act for Sudan, an alliance of grassroots advocacy organizations. Last December, the group sent a list of questions related to the events in Sudan to all the presidential candidates. So far, only the Romney campaign has responded.
In November, Act for Sudan sent an open letter to President Obama that was signed by 66 organizations, urging him to ramp up administration efforts to protect civilians and provide humanitarian relief for the people of Sudan and South Sudan.
"We believe the United States is not doing enough to uphold its responsibility to protect innocent civilians from atrocities perpetrated by the Sudanese government," the letter stated. "We, therefore, respectfully request that your administration make it a top priority to provide the necessary protection and change the ruthless political calculations of the National Congress Party."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will go the United Nations on Tuesday to press the Security Council to take action regarding Syria, in light of what the State Department is calling a "sharp escalation of regime violence."
The Arab-European draft resolution was discussed on Jan. 27 behind closed doors at the U.N. Security Council and will see public debate on Tuesday. It calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy and says additional measures will be taken if he doesn't comply within 15 days. In anticipation of that debate, where Russia is expected to staunchly oppose any resolution calling for Assad's departure, Clinton issued a new statement on the situation inside Syria that many saw as newly aggressive rhetoric from President Barack Obama's administration.
"In the past few days we have seen intensified Syrian security operations all around the country which have killed hundreds of civilians. The government has shelled civilian areas with mortars and tank fire and brought down whole buildings on top of their occupants. The violence has escalated to the point that the Arab League has had to suspend its monitoring mission. The regime has failed to meet its commitments to the Arab League to halt its acts of violence, withdraw its military forces from residential areas, allow journalists and monitors to operate freely and release prisoners arrested because of the current unrest," Clinton said in the statement.
"The Security Council must act and make clear to the Syrian regime that the world community views its actions as a threat to peace and security. The violence must end, so that a new period of democratic transition can begin," she said. "Tomorrow, I will attend a United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria where the international community should send a clear message of support to the Syrian people: we stand with you. The Arab League is backing a resolution that calls on the international community to support its ongoing efforts, because the status quo is unsustainable. The longer the Assad regime continues its attacks on the Syrian people and stands in the way of a peaceful transition, the greater the concern that instability will escalate and spill over throughout the region."
Clinton's statement comes after weeks of careful planning inside the Obama administration on when and how to confront the escalating violence in Syria. National Security Council Senior Director Steve Simon had been leading a small interagency team to game out U.S. policy options, but now the administration's policy machinery has kicked into full gear, meeting often to discuss a range of diplomatic maneuvers that could increase pressure on the Assad regime.
There's no longer any expectation inside the administration that Moscow will support international action aimed at removing Assad from power, even by non-military means. But the U.N. confrontation is meant to isolate Russia diplomatically and make it clear that the Arab League and its Western friends have exhausted all diplomatic options before moving to directly aid the internal opposition, if that decision is ultimately made.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Monday that Clinton, Deputy Secretary Bill Burns, and Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman have all been working the phones hard to build support for the U.N. resolution. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been "unavailable" while traveling in Australia, even though Clinton has been trying to reach him all day.
"The message that we are sending, the message that the secretary will send tomorrow when she goes to New York, is that the Security Council now needs to act, because the spiral of violence is dangerous not only for Damascus, not only for Syria and all Syrians, but it's also dangerous in the region, because obviously, you know, we've now got a cycle of violence that is quite worrying," Nuland said.
"You think there is still a path out for the regime?" one reporter asked.
"Well, that's obviously still on the table," Nuland said. "It requires Assad to step aside. "
MARTIAL TREZZINI/AFP/Getty Image
All three of the lobbying firms representing the Egyptian government in Washington, D.C., dropped Egypt as a client late Friday amid widespread criticism of the ruling military council's raid of U.S. NGOs in Cairo and its refusal to let American NGO workers leave the country.
The Livingston Group, run by former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA), the Moffett Group, run by former Rep. Toby Moffett (D-CT), and the Podesta Group, run by Tony Podesta, unanimously severed their combined $90,000 per month contract with the Egyptian government, Politico reported late Friday, quoting Livingston directly. The three firms had formed what is known as the PLM Group, a lobbying entity created to advocate on behalf of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in February 2011 after 18 days of massive street protests. According to the disclosure filings, Egypt has paid PLM more than $4 million since 2007.
The trio came under fire last week for circulating talking points defending Egypt's Dec. 29 raid of several NGOs working to train political parties in Egypt, including three organizations partially funded by the U.S. government. The groups had been working in Egypt for years without being technically registered with the government, but now stand accused of fomenting unrest against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been ruling the country since Mubarak's ouster.
"It is bad enough when the actions of American lobbyists conflict with U.S. national interests. It is far worse when their influence-peddling undermines American values, as the Egyptian government's lobbyists in Washington are doing in this instance," said Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) in a Jan. 24 statement. McCain is the chairman of the board of the International Republican Institute (IRI), one of the groups that had their Cairo offices raided. The other two groups were the National Democratic Institute, whose board is chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Freedom House.
The anger in Washington against the Egyptian government reached a boiling point when it was revealed Jan. 26 that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's son Sam LaHood, the head of IRI's Cairo office, had been barred from leaving Egypt by the government along with five other U.S. citizens.
"To have an American lobbyist lobbying for a government where these activities are taking place -- is there no shame in this town?" said Rep. Frank Wolf on Thursday.
On Friday, Sam LaHood told NPR that he and the other Americans trapped in Egypt could face criminal charges, lengthy trials, and years of prison time.
"If we are referred to trial," LaHood said. "The trial could last up to a year ... and the potential penalty is six months to five years in jail."
The lobbying groups buckled under the public pressure, recognizing that they couldn't influence the SCAF's actions in this case and that their association with the military council was harming their broader image. For years, these firms have been defending the Egyptian military's $1.3 billion annual aid package on Capitol Hill and lobbying for non-military aid to go through the government, and not directly to independent organizations as many democracy advocates urged.
The Cable reported that in late 2010, Bob Livingston personally called Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) to get him to kill a Senate resolution calling for greater respect for human rights and democracy in Egypt. Wicker placed a hold on the resolution and it died in the Senate.
Egypt's lobbyists were also responsible for negotiating an endowment the Egyptian government wanted from the Obama administration. But the Mubarak regime demanded the money be given with no annual Congressional oversight, and the negotiations broke down.
Congress did place new restrictions on military aid to Egypt in the most recent appropriations bill passed in December, as a way of pressing the SCAF to move faster toward handing over its executive powers to an elected government.
According to the legislation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must certify that the Egyptian government is living up to the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and that the SCAF is supporting the transition to civilian rule. Multiple congressional aides told The Cable Friday that the aid is now in serious jeopardy.
"Needless to say, this whole crisis is going to make it a lot more difficult for the secretary of state to meet the certification requirements to continue providing assistance to Egypt," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. "People up here are completely seized with this issue. They're putting their friends in a really awful spot."
Another senior Senate aide noted that the Obama administration is doing a lot of work behind the scenes to deescalate the crisis, which is threatening to do long-term harm to the official U.S.-Egypt relationship.
President Barack Obama brought up the raids in a call last week with SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, according to the White House. Clinton, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Lahood have been working the phones hard, calling contacts in Egypt to send strong messages and implore them to change course. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights Michael Posner was in Egypt on Jan. 26 and met with high-level Egyptian officials.
"Since the NGO raids in late December, the Obama administration has repeatedly provided paths for the SCAF to deescalate this crisis. Instead they keep escalating -- doubling down on a bad bet that, in the end, will prove ruinous to them," the Senate aide said. "Three weeks ago no one in Congress thought there was a chance in hell that aid to the Egyptian military could ever come under serious threat. It is now an increasingly and shockingly real prospect."
Ironically, McCain and Lieberman had been among the U.S. leaders most supportive of the SCAF and its role in maintaining stability during Egypt's fragile transition.
Many in Washington believe that the SCAF is being heavily influenced on this issue by one civilian Egyptian official, Fayza Abul-Naga, the minister of international cooperation and a holdover from the Mubarak era. In a speech this week, she disavowed the SCAF's previous promises to return the NGOs' raided possessions and cease harassing them as she lashed out at the American NGO groups.
Lorne Craner, the president of IRI, said in an interview Friday with The Cable that there is bad blood between Abul-Naga's ministry and the NGO groups. "Some people say that the people who used to get the money, for example the minister of international cooperation, resent the fact that they are not getting all of the funding," Craner said.
Meanwhile, the Americans and several of their locally hired staffers are enduring hours-long interviews as they await a possible arrest, which would only escalate the crisis.
"Things have gone from bad to worse," Craner said. "You start to think about Americans getting arrested on the streets of Cairo and sitting in a cage in some Cairo court ... And these are our allies."
UPDATE: On Sunday the Egyptian Embassy in Washington issued a statement claiming they dumped the PLM Group, not the other way around:
The Government of Egypt had decided to terminate its contractual relationship with the PLM Group. This decision was transmitted to the Group's principals on January 27th 2012 through an official letter, as the contract stipulates, that either party has the right to terminate the relation within a 60 days prior notice.
It is surprising that a distorted version of this fact is being circulated in some media outlets. It is equally disturbing that articles and media coverage of the issue were made without an attempt to contact the Egyptian Embassy to check the factual basis of the stories reported.
This Press Release attempts to clarify the situation in line with the official documents related to the matter including the letter of termination which was recently transmitted by the Embassy to the PLM Group.
The Cable has obtained a copy of the draft resolution on Syria currently being discussed inside the U.N. Security Council. It calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy and says additional measures would be taken if he doesn't comply within 15 days.
U.N. Security Council diplomats are meeting behind closed doors on Friday to discuss what's being called the Arab-European draft resolution on Syria. The Moroccan ambassador is presenting the draft resolution, which is designed to implement the recommendations of the Arab League transition plan laid out on Jan. 22.
The draft resolution condemns "the continued widespread and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities," demands that the Syrian government immediately put an end to all human rights violations, and calls on both sides to end attacks and violence immediately.
The resolution then lays out a political roadmap that matches the Arab League initiative intended to pave the way for a transition "leading to a democratic, plural political system" through the formation of a national unity government, the handing over of all presidential authority to Assad's deputy for a transition period, and then the holding of free and fair elections with international supervision.
Importantly, the draft resolution requests that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon report on the implementation of the resolution every 15 days and also directs the Security Council "to review Syria's implementation of this resolution [in] 15 days and, in the event that Syria has not complied, to adopt further measures, in consultation with the League of Arab States."
Representatives from the State Department and the U.S. mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland spelled out the broad goals the United States has for the final version of the resolution.
"We are looking for a resolution that reflects the commitments that the Arab League was seeking from the Syrian government, that -- in its November 2nd agreement, which unfortunately has not been lived up to by the Syrian side," Nuland said.
She indicated the United States was hopeful that Russia, which has been openly supporting Assad and sending him weapons, will work with the rest of the Security Council to produce a resolution that is strong and effective. Russia and China vetoed European resolution on Syria last fall and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Friday that Russia would veto any resolution that seeks to remove Assad from power.
"We continue to want to work with the Russians so that the whole U.N. Security Council is united in sending the strongest possible message to the Assad regime that the violence has got to end, and we've got to begin a transition," Nuland said.
President Barack Obama's administration has been delaying its planned $53 million arms sale to Bahrain due to human rights concerns and congressional opposition, but this week administration officials told several congressional offices that they will move forward with a new and different package of arms sales -- without any formal notification to the public.
The congressional offices that led the charge to oppose the original Bahrain arms sales package are upset that the State Department has decided to move forward with the new package. The opposition to Bahrain arms sales is led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), and also includes Senate Foreign Relations Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee chairman Robert Casey (D-PA), Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Wyden and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) have each introduced a resolution in their respective chambers to prevent the U.S. government from going through with the original sale, which would have included 44 armored, high-mobility Humvees and over 300 advanced missiles.
The State Department has not released details of the new sale, and Congress has not been notified through the regular process, which requires posting the information on the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) website. The State Department simply briefed a few congressional offices and is going ahead with the new sale, arguing it didn't meet the threshold that would require more formal notifications and a public explanation.
At today's State Department press briefing, The Cable asked spokeswoman Victoria Nuland about the new sale. She acknowledged the new package but didn't have any details handy.
Our congressional sources said that State is using a legal loophole to avoid formally notifying Congress and the public about the new arms sale. The administration can sell anything to anyone without formal notification if the sale is under $1 million. If the total package is over $1 million, State can treat each item as an individual sale, creating multiple sales of less than $1 million and avoiding the burden of notification, which would allow Congress to object and possibly block the deal.
We're further told that State is keeping the exact items in the sale secret, but is claiming they are for Bahrain's "external defense" and therefore couldn't be used against protesters. Of course, that's the same argument that State made about the first arms package, which was undercut by videos showing the Bahraini military using Humvees to suppress civilian protesters.
Regardless, congressional opponents to Bahrain arms sales are planning to fight back. Wyden is circulating a letter now to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating that Bahrain's government continues to commit human rights violations and should not be rewarded with U.S. arms sales.
"The Bahraini government has shown little progress in improving their human rights record over the last few months and in some ways, their record has gotten worse," Wyden told The Cable on Friday. "Protesters are still being hurt and killed, midnight arrests are still happening and the government continues to deny access to human rights monitors. The kingdom of Bahrain has not shown a true good faith effort to improve human rights in their country and the U.S. should not be rewarding them as if they have."
"Supplying arms to a regime that continues to persecute its citizens is not in the best interest of the United States," Wyden said. "When the government of Bahrain shows that it respects the human rights of its citizens it will become more stable and a better ally in the region; only then should arms sales from the U.S. resume."
That point was echoed by McGovern, who pledged to oppose any arms sales to Bahrain.
"The government of Bahrain continues to perpetrate serious human rights abuses and to deny independent monitors access to the country," McGovern told The Cable. "Until Bahrain takes more substantial and lasting steps to protect the rights of its own citizens, the United States should not reward its government with any military sales."
A State Department official declined to give specifics of the new arms package to The Cable but said that Bahrain was moving in the right direction.
"We have seen some important initial steps from the Bahraini government in implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's recommendations, but more needs to be done," the official said. "We urge the government of Bahrain to take action on the full range of recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation."
Cherif Bassiouni, the chair of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry that investigated the government crackdown on protests in 2011, recently said in an interview that the administration is not doing enough to pressure the Bahrain regime. "There is merit in naming and shaming and embarrassing, in pushing, in enlisting public opinion, domestic and international. This is not the style of Secretary Clinton or President Obama, and I'm not sure they are necessarily doing the right choice," he said.
Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told The Cable on Friday that the new sale will be perceived by both the government of Bahrain and those in the opposition as a green light for the government to continue its repression.
"In the broader picture of the Arab Spring, this further erodes the credibility of U.S. rhetoric about democracy and human rights in the region," he said. "Rewarding regimes that repress peaceful dissent with arms sales simply does not square with the administration's rhetoric. The administration can no longer afford to endorse the status quo in Bahrain."
Maryam al-Khawaja, the head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told The Cable on Friday that the sale of U.S. arms to the Bahraini regime sends the wrong message to the people of Bahrain, and the region in general.
"This message of ‘business as usual' will only strengthen the regime's belief that there will continue to be lack of consequences to their human rights violations internationally," she said. "At a time when the United States is already being criticized for practicing double standards when it comes to the so-called Arab spring, to the protesters in Bahrain, the U.S. selling any arms to the government of Bahrain is exactly like Russia selling arms to Syria. Bahrain has become the United States' test on how serious they are about standing against human rights violations, and they are failing miserably."
UPDATE: Late Friday evening, the State Department sent out a lenghty statement on the arms sales:
We are maintaining a pause on most security assistance for Bahrain pending further progress on reform.
During the last two weeks, representatives from the State Department and Department of Defense briefed appropriate Congressional staff on our intention to release some previously notified equipment needed for Bahrain's external defense and support of Fifth Fleet operations. This includes spare parts and maintenance of equipment. None of these items can be used against protestors.
This isn't a new sale nor are we using a legal loophole. The items that we briefed to Congress were notified and cleared by the Hill previously or are not large enough to require Congressional notification. In fact, we've gone above and beyond what is legally or customarily required by consulting with Congressional staff on items that do not require Congressional notification.
We have and will continue to use our security assistance to reinforce reforms in Bahrain. We have seen some important initial steps from the Bahraini government in implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's (BICI) recommendations, but more needs to be done. We urge the government of Bahrain to take action on the full range of recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation.
We will continue to consult extensively with Congress on this policy.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.