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.
President Barack Obama's administration is working on the details of how it will implement crippling new sanctions against Iran, and the two senators who wrote the legislation warned the White House today not to water down the measures.
"We understand that the administration is drafting rules to guide the implementation of the law and we hereby seek to convey the legislative intent underlying certain terms and phrases in the amendment and to ensure that the positive developments that have occurred as a result of the amendment are buttressed by the administrative rules," wrote Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) in a letter today to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who traveled personally to Japan and China this month to discuss the issue.
The State Department has sent teams to several countries urging them to comply with the new measures imposed by the Menendez-Kirk amendment, but the administration's recent enthusiasm for the sanctions is at odds with their attempts to water down the sanctions language while it was going through Congress. The law would punish any country or bank that does business with the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), or with Iran's state-controlled oil sector.
That's why Kirk and Menendez, along with their allies, are now worried that the Obama administration will try to implement the rules in such a way that will allow some countries that refuse to stop doing business with Iran to wiggle off the hook, by delaying implementation for months or claiming that other countries' adherence is more robust than it really is.
Obama, for his part, has hailed his administration's success in establishing a broad-based coalition aimed at isolating Iran.
"When I came into office, what we had was a situation in which the world was divided, Iran was unified, it was on the move in the region. And because of effective diplomacy, unprecedented pressure with respect to sanctions, our ability to get countries like Russia and China -- that had previously balked at any serious pressure on Iran -- to work with us, Iran now faces a unified world community, Iran is isolated, its standing in the region is diminished. It is feeling enormous economic pressure," the president told Time in an interview released today.
The Menendez-Kirk letter list several concerns about the forthcoming rules, which could be unveiled as early as next week. Their two main worries are that the administration will allow countries to avoid being penalized by saying they have achieved "significant reductions" in their dealing with Iran, and that Obama will postpone implementation of the sanctions on national security grounds.
The implementation rules will define exactly what the term "significant reductions" means. Menendez and Kirk want the administration to use the same definition as was used for the last round of Iran sanctions, as dictated by the Comprehensive Iran Sanction, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), to avoid any confusion.
"To ascribe more variable terminology to the definition of ‘significantly reduced' would diminish the ability of countries to understand and comply with the amendment," the senators wrote. "An unevenly applied interpretation would also call into question the seriousness of the sanctions policy and send mixed signals to both Iran and our allies."
The senators' other main concern is that Obama will avail himself of the "national security waiver" found in the law to postpone implementing the new sanctions altogether for another 120 days. If he doesn't invoke this waiver, sanctions against countries that do business with the CBI could take hold Feb. 29. If Obama uses the waiver, he won't have to sanction any countries until late June, which tracks with the timeline the law specifies for the imposition of the oil-related sanctions.
The senators also don't think Obama should be able to waive all the sanctions with one stroke of the pen. They want him to have to waive sanctions for each country on a case-by-case basis. That's one of the things the forthcoming rules will address.
"We would welcome an opportunity to discuss these points with you prior to the publication of the final rule for the Menendez-Kirk amendment," the senators wrote -- a nice way to complain to the administration that they are not being properly consulted.
A senior Senate aide who works on the issue was more direct with The Cable.
"There's been little to no consultation or communication on this rule," the aide said. "There is growing concern that the administration may be moving toward a broad and non-specific definition for ‘significant reduction,' and the intention of the authors is that every bank that is in violation of the law would need its own national security waiver in order for the president to exempt them."
The actual rule writing is done at Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), run by Adam Szubin.
"The administration is hard at work drafting the regulations implementing the legislation. We are already using this law, in concert with our other efforts, to reduce Iran's access to oil revenue, both by working with our partners to significantly reduce their imports of Iranian crude and by impeding the CBI's ability to receive payment for whatever oil Iran is able to sell," a Treasury Department spokesman told The Cable. "We will continue our intensive engagement to ensure that the maximum amount of pressure is exerted by the international community against Iran's illicit nuclear program."
The Chinese people are increasingly frustrated with the Chinese Communist Party and the political situation in China is "very, very delicate," U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke said on Wednesday.
"I do believe that there is a power of the people, and there is a growing frustration among the people over the operations of government, corruption, lack of transparency, and issues that affect the Chinese people on a daily basis that they feel are being neglected," Locke told NPR's Steve Inskeep during a Wednesday interview, part of a media blitz Locke is conducting during his visit to Washington.
"Do you think that the situation is fundamentally stable in China right now?" Inskeep asked Locke.
"I think, very delicate -- very, very delicate," Locke responded. "But there were calls earlier this year for a Jasmine Revolution and nothing came of it. I think it would take something very significant, internal to China, to cause any type of major upheaval."
Locke said that since he took over the ambassadorship from former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, he has become aware of public demonstrations large and small throughout China that ordinary people were using to pressure the government to address their grievances. He singled out a recent protest in the southern Chinese city of Wukan over the confiscation of land without reasonable compensation.
"[The people] basically prevented anybody from the outside from coming in and brought the city to a halt and forced the Chinese government communist leaders to send people to address their grievances," Locke said.
The discord inside China is partly a result of the income and wealth disparity between China's growing middle class and the masses of poor, rural residents, Locke said. He also said the Chinese government's human rights record was worsening.
"[I]t's very clear that in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and since then, there's been a greater intolerance of dissent -- and the human rights record of China has been going in the wrong direction," said Locke.
Asked for comment at today's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland backed up Locke's comments on human rights and the rule of law in China.
"[Locke] obviously speaks for the administration in expressing continued concern that we seem to have an increasing trend of crackdowns, forced disappearances, extralegal detentions, arrests and convictions of human rights activists, lawyers, religious leaders, ethnic minorities in China," she said.
But Nuland declined to repeat Locke's assertion that the Chinese government was potentially unstable.
"I think our message to the Chinese government on these issues is the same message that we give around the world when we have human rights concerns, that governments are stronger when they protect the human rights of their people and when they allow for peaceful dissent," she said.
The State Department is continuing to roll out big changes to its bureaucracy, inaugurating today a new "super office" to focus on protecting individuals by working outside of formal state-to-state channels, called the Office of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.
Similar to last month's rollout of the super office of economics, energy, and the environment, this new office combines new and existing bureaus at State to increase coordination and tackle these issues more efficiently. The changes were spelled out last year in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) and take effect today. The new structure will be described in State's brief shorthand as the "J" family.
The office's main mission is to improve the ways in which the U.S. government can promote the protection of individuals abroad and increase interactions with foreign civilian organizations.
"As we are seeing the increasing importance of using non-military tools to address transnational threats, it is very important for the State Department to develop its own capacity to address civilian security," said Maria Otero, the leader of the new office, in a Thursday interview with The Cable. Otero was previously the undersecretary of State for democracy and global affairs. In her new position, she will be charged with overseeing over 1,500 people all over the world.
"This piece focuses on protecting individuals. It focuses not just engaging state to state, but taking on the bold foreign policy statement that we need to engage also with players and actors outside of the traditional ones we've engaged in."
State will now be able to better coordinate its engagement with civil society, the private sector, and other non-governmental actors, she said. She referenced Egypt, where State works on security sector reform and human rights, as an example. Now officials can coordinate to "be able to engage not only with the SCAF but also with the bloggers," Otero said.
Other regions where Otero is looking to focus the attention of her new super office are Burma, Central America, Africa's Great Lakes region, and North Africa. Otero has visited Central America, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Tunisia, and several other countries over the last year.
Otero said the changes will allow State to do more without an increase in financial resources, but will require a light increase in staffing.
She will now be in charge of 5 functional bureaus and three offices. They are the brand new Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), to be led by nominated Assistant Secretary Rick Barton; the brand new Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT), to be led by Amb. Daniel Benjamin; the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), which is led by Assistant Secretary Michael Posner; the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), led by Assistant Secretary William Brownfield; and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) led by acting Assistant Secretary David Robinson.
Otero already had jurisdiction over DRL and PRM, but is now taking over INL from the office of Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of political affairs. The SCO and CT bureaus were offices reporting directly to Clinton before.
The J family also now includes the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP), led by Ambassador Luis CdeBaca; the Office of Global Criminal Justice (CGJ), formerly the Office of War Crimes Issues (WCI), led by Ambassador-at-Large Stephen Rapp; and the Office of Global Youth Issues, led by future Rhodes scholar, Yale Law graduate, and country-music recording artist Ronan Farrow.
Some in State see the recent bureaucratic changes there as part of Clinton's plan to institutionalize her priorities by turning individual offices that reported directly to her into permanent structures that will remain after her departure, which is widely expected to occur next year. Otero said the changes were a response to the changing diplomatic landscape, which is increasingly influenced by non-state actors.
"This is the implementation of the vision the secretary had," she said. "She's done a strategic review, she's made changes, and now the form is following the substance."
The organizational chart for the new office can be found here.
As the violence in Syria spirals out of control, top officials in President Barack Obama's administration are quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition, including gaming out the unlikely option of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and preparing for another major diplomatic initiative.
Critics on Capitol Hill accuse the Obama administration of being slow to react to the quickening deterioration of the security situation in Syria, where more than 5,000 people have died, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many lawmakers say the White House is once again "leading from behind," while the Turks, the French, and the Arab League -- which sent an observer mission to Syria this week -- pursue more aggressive strategies for pressuring the Assad regime. But U.S. officials insist that they are moving cautiously to avoid destabilizing Syria further, and to make sure they know as much as possible about the country's complex dynamics before getting more involved.
The administration does see the status quo in Syria as unsustainable. Bashar al-Assad's regime is a "dead man walking," State Department official Fred Hof said this month. Now, the administration is ramping up its policymaking machinery on the issue after several weeks of having no top-level administration meetings to discuss the Syria crisis. The National Security Council (NSC) has begun an informal, quiet interagency process to create and collect options for aiding the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.
The process, led by NSC Senior Director Steve Simon, involves only a few select officials from State, Defense, Treasury, and other relevant agencies. The group is unusually small, presumably to prevent media leaks, and the administration is not using the normal process of Interagency Policy Committee, Deputies Committee, or Principals Committee meetings, the officials said. (Another key official inside the discussions is Hof, who is leading the interactions with Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. allies.)
The options under consideration include establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya), according to the two officials, both of whom are familiar with the discussions but not in attendance at the meetings.
"The interagency is now looking at options for Syria, but it's still at the preliminary stage," one official said. "There are many people in the administration that realize the status quo is unsustainable and there is an internal recognition that existing financial sanctions are not going to bring down the Syrian regime in the near future."
After imposing several rounds of financial sanctions on Syrian regime leaders, the focus is now shifting to assisting the opposition directly. The interagency process is still ongoing and the NSC has tasked State and DOD to present options in the near future, but nothing has been decided, said the officials -- one of whom told The Cable that the administration was being intentionally careful out of concern about what comes next in Syria.
"Due to the incredible and far-reaching ramifications of the Syrian problem set, people are being very cautious," the official said. "The criticism could be we're not doing enough to change the status quo because we're leading from behind. But the reason we are being so cautious is because when you look at the possible ramifications, it's mindboggling."
A power vacuum in the country, loose weapons of mass destruction, a refugee crisis, and unrest across the region are just a few of the problems that could attend the collapse of the Assad regime, the official said.
"This isn't Libya. What happens in Libya stays in Libya, but that is not going to happen in Syria. The stakes are higher," the official said. "Right now, we see the risks of moving too fast as higher than the risks of moving too slow."
The option of establishing a humanitarian corridor is seen as extremely unlikely because it would require establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, which would likely involve large-scale attacks on Syrian air defense and military command-and-control systems.
"That's theoretically one of the options, but it's so far out of the realm that no one is thinking about that seriously at the moment," another administration official said.
Although the opposition is decidedly split on the issue, Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), earlier this month called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.
"Our main objective is finding mechanisms to protect civilians and stop the killing machine," said Ghalioun. "We say it is imperative to use forceful measures to force the regime to respect human rights."
Is the U.S. bark worse than its bite?
Rhetorically, the administration has been active in calling for Assad to step aside and emphasizing the rights of Syrian protesters, despite the lack of clear policy to achieve either result. "The United States continues to believe that the only way to bring about the change that the Syrian people deserve is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Dec. 21.
On Tuesday, Dec. 27, the administration hinted at stronger action if the Syrian government doesn't let the Arab League monitors do their work. "If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
The SNC, the primary organization representing the opposition, has been very clear that it is seeking more than rhetorical support from the United States and the international community. An extensive policy paper titled, "Safe Area for Syria," edited by SNC member Ausama Monajed, laid out the argument for armed intervention by the international community to aid Syrian civilians.
"The Syrian National Council (SNC) is entering a critical phase in the Syrian revolution whereby the hope of a continued campaign of passive resistance to an exceptionally brutal and unrestrained regime is becoming more and more akin to a suicide pact," the paper stated.
But Washington is uncomfortable acting in concert with the SNC: Officials say there is a lack of confidence that the SNC, which is strongly influenced by expatriate Syrians, has the full support of the internal opposition. U.S. officials are also wary of supporting the Syria Free Army, made up of Syrian military defectors and armed locals, as they do not want to be seen as becoming militarily engaged against the regime -- a story line they fear that Assad could use for his own propaganda, officials said.
There is also some internal bureaucratic wrangling at play. This summer, when the issue of sending emergency medical equipment into Syria came up in a formal interagency meeting, disputes over jurisdiction stalled progress on the discussion, officials told The Cable. No medical aid was sent.
For now, the administration is content to let the Arab League monitoring mission play out and await its Jan. 20 report. The officials said that the administration hopes to use the report to begin a new diplomatic initiative in late January at the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad and authorize direct assistance to the opposition.
The officials acknowledged that this new initiative could fail due to Russian support for the Assad regime. If that occurs, the administration would work with its allies such as France and Turkey to establish their own justification for non-military humanitarian intervention in Syria, based on evidence from the Arab League report and other independent reporting on Assad's human rights abuses. This process could take weeks, however, meaning that material assistance from the United States to the Syrian opposition probably wouldn't flow at least until late February or early March. Between now and then, hundreds or even thousands more could be killed.
There is also disagreement within the administration about whether the Arab League observer mission is credible and objective.
"This is an Arab issue right now, and the Arab League is really showing initiative for the first time in a long time," said one administration official.
"[The Arab League monitoring mission] is all Kabuki theatre," said another administration official who does not work directly on Syria. "We're intentionally setting the bar too high [for intervention] as means of maintaining the status quo, which is to do nothing."
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the administration was caught offguard by how the opposition became militarized so quickly. The administration's message had been to urge the opposition to remain peaceful, but that ship has now sailed, he said.
"We have a pretty strong policy of not engaging the Syria Free Army directly, because earlier it was agreed that peaceful protesters had the moral high ground over the regime and were more able to encourage defections," he said. "But there was no clear light at the end of that peaceful protest strategy. We assumed, incorrectly, that the civil resistance strategies used in Egypt and Tunisia were being adopted by the Syrian opposition, but that didn't happen."
Most experts in Washington have a deep skepticism toward the Arab League monitoring mission. For one thing, it is led by a Sudanese general who has been accused of founding the Arab militias that wreaked havoc in Darfur. Also, many doubt that 150 monitors that will eventually be in Syria can cover the vast number of protests and monitor such a large country.
The Assad regime has also been accused of subverting the monitoring mission by moving political prisoners to military sites that are off-limits to monitors, repositioning tanks away from cities only when monitors are present, and having soldiers pose as police to downplay the military's role in cracking down on the protesters.
"It seems awfully risky for the U.S. to be putting its chips all in on that mission," said Tony Badran, a research fellow with the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "There never was a serious mechanism for it to be a strong initiative."
Badran said that the Arab League monitoring mission just gives the Assad regime time and space to maneuver, and provides Russia with another excuse to delay international action on Syria.
"Now you understand why the Russians pushed the Syrians to accept the monitors," he said. "It allows the Syrians to delay the emergence of consensus."
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the administration is trying to balance the value of protecting civilians with the interests of trying to ensure a measure of stability in Syria.
"The biggest thing is extensive consultation with as many international allies as possible. That's another feature of this administration," said Katulis. "And when change does come to Syria, the Syrians have to own it."
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
As of last Friday, President Barack Obama's administration was considering announcing a new package of food aid to North Korea and working toward the resumption of talks about North Korea's nuclear program. Today, that whole plan has been upended due to the death of Kim Jong Il, forcing the administration to grapple with a whole new set of North Korea problems.
On Dec. 15-16, the State Department's Special Envoy for Human Rights Bob King met with North Korean foreign ministry official Ri Gun in Beijing to work out the details for monitoring the distribution of huge new shipments of food aid from the United States to North Korea, which claims to be in dire need. The South Korean press reported on Dec. 17 that an agreement had been struck for the United States to send 20,000 tons of food aid a month to North Korea for the next 12 months, or a grand total of 240,000 tons of food assistance.
The U.S. Special Representative on North Korea Glyn Davies was also in Beijing Dec. 15 and 16, coincidentally. On Dec. 17, news reports quoted an anonymous diplomatic source as saying that Pyongyang had agreed to suspend uranium enrichment -- one of Washington's key demands for the resumption of Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program, which have been defunct since 2008. Davies was supposed to travel to Beijing to firm up the details of that arrangement with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan on Dec. 22.
All of those arrangements are now on hold indefinitely, as the United States regroups with allies Japan and South Korea to try to assess the current situation inside North Korea, prepare for the downside risk of a violent transition, and figure out how to proceed in dealing with a regime that has nuclear weapons and a very uncertain future.
"Where we were headed was the giving of food aid, the restart of the [prisoner of war] remains recovery project (to return U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean war), and these would be the two goodies that North Korea would get to undertake the pre-steps to restarting the Six Party Talks. The administration was going to announce the food aid this week and Davies was supposed to be in Beijing by Thursday," said Victor Cha, former Asia director at the National Security Council, who now holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Now we've got a whole new problem, not just seeing if we can get back to where we were Friday," said Cha. "This transition may not go well. It completely changes the whole character of the North Korea problem overnight. A runaway nuclear program, the sudden death of Kim Jong Il, and we know nothing about the new leadership. You can't imagine a worse problem than this."
At today's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland emphasized that no final decisions had been made on granting food aid to North Korea or sending Davies to Beijing. In fact, she said that there was supposed to be a high-level interagency meeting today at the White House with King and Davies to make these very decisions.
That meeting did take place early on Monday, but did not focus on food aid, uranium enrichment, the Six Party talks, or any other bilateral issue, according to Nuland.
"Meetings that might have happened today with our travelers who just got back instead were focused on maintaining close contact with our other partners in the Six Party Talks and on ensuring calm and regional stability on the peninsula," Nuland said. "So we have yet to have the internal review of these issues that we need to have."
Nuland also said that the Obama administration wanted "to be respectful of the North Korean period of mourning," so no further negotiations are expected for a while. North Korea does not intend to invite foreign delegations to Kim's Dec. 28 funeral.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was briefed on the situation in North Korea twice on Sunday night by Davies and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. She just happened to be meeting Monday at the State Department with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, after which told reporters, "We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea, as well as in ensuring regional peace and stability."
Clinton said that Obama had spoken with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Sunday night, and officials were reaching out to their counterparts in Russia and China as well. Clinton made no mention of the recent U.S.-North Korea bilateral diplomacy, nor did she reiterate calls for North Korea to honor its previous agreements to denuclearize and rejoin multilateral talks on that issue.
Clinton and Gemba took no questions at their post-meeting "press conference."
One Asia hand close to the administration told The Cable today that the bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea were even more advanced than had been reported. According to this expert, the North Koreans had also discussed a moratorium on missile testing, which would have been announced after the resumption of the Six Party Talks. The North Koreans were also asking the United States to resume its assistance in building a light water commercial nuclear reactor in North Korea, an idea that has been part of past negotiations but was scuttled when the 1994 Agreed Framework, which was meant to govern North Korea's nuclear program, broke down in 2002.
That 1994 agreement is seen by some as a positive indicator that progress can be made with North Korea despite a leadership transition. The agreement was signed only months after Kim Jong Il took power following the death of his father, Kim Il Sung.
"We want to continue forward and see if there's continuity in their policy," the Asia hand said.. "If we're in a holding pattern for too long, things could shift in the other direction. That's the danger here."
If and when the food aid decision finally comes, it will be controversial here in Washington. Several GOP senators are opposed to what they see as bribing the North Koreans to come back to the negotiating table. In fact, some senators will likely point to assurances the administration gave Congress that it wouldn't bribe North Korea, which were made as part of the deal to confirm the U.S. envoy to South Korea, Sung Kim, in October.
The State Department always claims that food aid decisions are made on humanitarian grounds and not linked to policy decisions, but the timing of the negotiations is not seen as a coincidence by those on Capitol Hill.
"Food aid is always classified as separate, however, if the press reports are accurate it is clear that the administration was prepared to link food aid to a suspension of North Korea's uranium enrichment program," one Senate GOP aide told The Cable. "Of course food aid is a financial reward.... Leave it to North Korea -- Kim's untimely death -- to save the administration from its own worst impulses. How long they can resist repeating the mistakes of 1994 remains to be seen."
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama's administration is working behind the scenes to water down congressional language that would impose crippling sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI).
The Obama administration sent to Congress this week a list of requested changes to the sanctions language found in the Senate's version of the defense authorization bill, which was passed last week. Those sanctions, which would punish any bank that does business with the CBI, were part of an amendment authored by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) that passed the Senate over the administration's objections by a vote of 100 to 0.
The House and the Senate are negotiating over the defense authorization bill this week behind closed doors, so the administration has one more chance to try to change the sanctions language before the bill lands on Obama's desk. If the Kirk-Menendez language is sent to the president without any alterations, he will be forced to either accept it or veto the entire defense authorization bill. There's no indication yet which way he would go.
The administration's laundry list of requested changes to the bill was sent to leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. The administration wants to delay the implementation of sanctions not related to oil purchases from 60 to 180 days, and wants to water down the severity of sanctions measures if and when they are put into effect.
Kirk and Menendez sent a letter on Monday night to House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-WA), which was obtained by The Cable, urging them to hold the line and keep the Senate language as-is.
"The Menendez/Kirk amendment is tough, responsible and, most importantly, bipartisan. It provides the Administration another key tool to curb Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons while keeping oil markets stable and encouraging other nations to reduce Iranian oil purchases. With the support of every single United States Senator, it needs no alterations," they wrote.
"We understand the administration has submitted to your Committee a list of proposed changes to the Menendez/Kirk amendment -- both ‘technical fixes' and ‘alterations.' We would note that proposals to delay sanctions implementation and water down the amendment's penalties are not ‘technical' in nature and should be rejected."
Menendez had been working with the administration on how to sanction the CBI, but publicly announced on Dec. 1 that he felt burned by the administration's public opposition to his amendment. "This certainly undermines your relationship with me for the future," Menendez told administration officials at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
So the administration must now look toward Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for help in altering the Kirk-Menendez amendment. Berman's committee has shared jurisdiction on the bill, and Berman has been active in sponsoring legislation to sanction Iran and the CBI.
In a statement e-mailed to The Cable, Berman indicated that the Kirk-Menendez language might not be the final say in how Congress moves to sanction Iran.
"As the original author of the House amendment to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, I am pleased that the Senate has taken action on this urgent issue. In the near future, the House will pass the Iran Threat Reduction Act, which includes my amendment," Berman said. "Meanwhile, I will be working with my colleagues in the House, the Senate, and the Administration in an effort to ensure that the final language of the Kirk-Menendez amendment is as tough and sensible as possible and provides a time-frame that corresponds to the rapid progress Iran is making toward developing nuclear weapons."
One GOP congressional aide told The Cable that if Berman seems to be working to weaken the Senate language, Republicans are ready to use that as fodder against him in his upcoming primary fight against Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA). The two lawmakers' districts were combined due to redistricting, and they now have to run against each other next year.
"I can't imagine why Howard Berman would want to put his seat at risk by helping the Obama administration weaken Iran sanctions," the GOP aide said. "All he needs to say is 'The House recedes' and the Menendez/Kirk amendment becomes law. Brad Sherman must be licking his chops."
Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is returning to "Mubarak-era tactics of repression," and the U.S. government should condition military funding to Egypt on such repression ending, a bipartisan group of Egypt experts said today.
"Nearly ten months since the start of the Egyptian revolution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has yet to take basic steps towards establishing a human rights-respecting, democratic, civilian government," reads a Nov. 17 statement by the Working Group on Egypt, given exclusively to The Cable. "On the contrary, in many areas Egypt is witnessing a continuation or return of Mubarak-era tactics of repression, as well as increasingly obvious efforts by SCAF to extend and even increase its own power in the government well beyond the scheduled parliamentary elections."
The Egypt Working Group, made up of prominent former officials and think tankers from both sides of the aisle, was one of the key voices in the Washington foreign policy community in the lead up to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak earlier this year. The group has long advocated pressing Egypt to quicken progress toward democratic reform and respect for human rights.
Members of the working group include former NSC Middle East official Elliott Abrams, the Carnegie Endowment's Michele Dunne, Human Rights Watch's Washington director Tom Malinowski, the Center for American Progress's Brian Katulis, Brookings' Robert Kagan, Foreign Policy Initiative's Ellen Bork, the Project on Middle East Democracy's Steve McInerney, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Robert Satloff, and others.
The group wrote that -- in addition to repressive policies used against protesters, journalists, and Egyptian minority groups -- the SCAF is also resisting calls to schedule a presidential election and is attempting to retain executive power throughout the drafting of the Egyptian Constitution.
"These policies risk placing Egypt's rulers in conflict with its people once again -- an outcome that would be terrible for Egypt and for the United States. The U.S. should make clear its support for a genuine democratic transition that will require an end to military rule in Egypt, and use all the leverage it has to encourage this goal, including the placing of conditions on future aid to the Egyptian military," the group wrote.
Their view is at odds with that of the head the State Department's new office on Middle East Transitions, William Taylor, who said Nov. 3 that he became convinced on a recent trip to Egypt that the SCAF is eager to get out of the governing business and hand over executive power as soon as possible.
"[The SCAF] wanted to make it very clear to this American sitting on the other side of the table that they didn't like the governing business," Taylor said. "I do believe that they are uncomfortable governing. Some would say they're not doing a great job of it. "
Read the working group's full statement after the jump:
Earlier this year, the self-immolation of one Tunisian fruit vendor sparked a region-wide series of revolutions that upended autocrats around the Middle East. Meanwhile, no less than 10 Tibetan monks have set themselves on fire this year to protest Chinese repression in their homeland, but the international community has yet to take notice.
Lobsang Sangay, the newly-elected prime minister of Tibet's government-in-exile, is in Washington this week to raise awareness of the dire human rights situation in Tibet and to call for U.S. support. He'll be meeting with senators, congressmen, and NGO leaders to educate them on the deteriorating situation in Tibet, but he has not been granted any meetings with senior Obama administration officials -- presumably due to their fear of creating friction in the relationship with China. He sat down Monday for a long, exclusive interview with The Cable.
"The urgent message is the ongoing self-immolations," Sangay said. "That reflects the desperate state that Tibetans are in. They are forced to take such drastic action, which is really sad. The motivation is that they want to highlight the oppressive policies of the Chinese government.... It's tragic."
He met with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a long time supporter of the Tibetan cause, and plans to meet with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), and others. He will also speak on Wednesday at the National Press Club and testify before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, led by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA).
Sangay is hoping Congress will pass a resolution expressing solidarity with the Tibetan people and criticizing the repressive Chinese policies. He is also building support for his effort to provide funding that will help young Tibetans in exile receive an education in India and Nepal. Overall, he is simply hoping to highlight to Washington the worsening plight of Tibetans inside China.
"Many people are giving up their lives thinking the international community will come and hear their voices and support them," he said. "A resolution from Congress will send a message to Tibetans that their sacrifice is not in vain."
He also wants the Obama administration to put pressure on the Chinese government to improve the situation in Tibet. Sangay said the administration has raised the issue "in general" with Chinese leaders, but that he's not aware of any formal, concrete action by the administration on this issue.
The list of Chinese aggressive policies in Tibet is long, Sangay said, including economic marginalization, cultural assimilation, environmental destruction, and political repression. The crackdown on dissent has been increased, particularly in monastic communities, since the Tibetan uprising of 2008.
"Inside Tibet, they are giving up their lives and saying ‘Hear us. We are in a terrible situation and it's not worth living. We want you to acknowledge that you see us and you hear us,'" Sangay said. "So to acknowledge their suffering and to raise their aspirations and concerns, also to the Chinese government, that would go a long way."
We pressed Sangay to comment on the perception that the Obama administration has mistreated the Tibetan government-in-exile -- for example, by downgrading the location and publicity of Obama's meetings with the Dalai Lama and, in one case in Feb. 2010, making the Dalai Lama leave through a back door of the White House and walk past garbage in order to avoid the press.
"If we could have a result-oriented action, that would be most welcome. But a public display of support [by the Obama administration] has a symbolic meaning because that would encourage other countries to follow suit," he said. "We welcome both public and private gestures and public gestures have added significance."
He said the Chinese government is moving thousands of ethnically Han Chinese into Tibet to change the demographics of the region, and is installing party apparatchiks inside Tibetan monasteries under the rubric of "democratic management committees." He also said that an undeclared martial law has resulted in scores of Tibetans being arbitrarily arrested under trumped-up charges and then often disappeared altogether.
"When you read accounts of Chinese action in Africa, it looks like a replication of what is happening in Tibet," Sangay said, alleging that Tibet's water and other natural resources are being diverted out of the region. "Ten major rivers of Asia, which feed about one-third or more of the world's population, flow through Tibet.... You can call water the ‘white gold of the 21st century' and the Chinese are controlling that. It's affecting millions of people in Asia and creating a lot of tension."
So why hasn't the Tibetan crisis gotten as much world attention as the Arab Spring? In short, Sangay said that Chinese censorship and the isolation of the Tibetan community has impaired its ability to broadcast news of its plight.
"That's why I'm here, to make sure that these sacrifices do not go in vain," Sangay said, emphasizing that his government does not encourage self-immolation but feels a duty to speak up for protesters once they have acted.
The Chinese government doesn't recognize Sangay's government and often accuses him of promoting "anti-China splittist activities."
The Chinese government has sought to nominate the next Dalai Lama, a selection that Tibet's spiritual leaders said on Sept. 24 belongs to the current Dalai Lama alone. Sangay denounced China's position as ironic, given its denunciation of the Dalai Lama.
"It's a declared communist party, which believes that religion is poison.... They call the Dalai Lama the devil and they ban his photograph. So they want to choose the devil's incarnate?" Sangay said.
Sangay is not your typical prime minister-in-exile because, following the Dalai Lama's decision to transfer all political authority to the prime minister, he won the first really competitive race for the post. Before that, he spent 15 years in the United States, including time as a fellow at Harvard Law School, where he organized several meetings between Tibetan and Chinese scholars.
Sangay is committed to what's known as the "Middle Way," which refers to a call for Tibet's political autonomy and religious freedom but not independence from China. He sees a model in the example of Hong Kong, which is part of China but operates in its own way.
"I have a track record of someone who invests and believes in dialogue and I've met with hundreds of Chinese scholars," he said. "Many Chinese scholars do believe the Tibet issue is solvable because our demands are quite reasonable. It's the hard liners at the leadership level that are yet to come around."
He also said that the Tibetan issue is a matter of ethnic tolerance in China.
"They are willing to grant autonomy to Hong Kong and Macau because they are Han Chinese ... why they are not granting Tibetans autonomy is because they are Tibetans," he said. "Unless the leadership believes in diversity, they will never understand democracy.... Once they grant autonomy to Tibet, they will come around to embrace diversity, which will be the beginning of the real democratization of China."
Former Vice President Dick Cheney argued on Friday morning that the waterboarding of terror suspects did not amount to torture because the same techniques had been used on U.S. soldiers during training.
"The notion that somehow the United States was torturing anybody is not true," Cheney told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute at an event to promote his new book. "Three people were waterboarded and the one who was subjected most often to that was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and it produced phenomenal results for us."
"Another key point that needs to be made was that the techniques that we used were all previously used on Americans," Cheney went on. "All of them were used in training for a lot of our own specialists in the military. So there wasn't any technique that we used on any al Qaeda individual that hadn't been used on our own troops first, just to give you some idea whether or not we were ‘torturing' the people we captured."
Of course, there are some differences between the waterboarding of troops as part of their Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training and the waterboarding of suspected al Qaeda prisoners. For example, the troops in training are not subjected to the practice 183 times, as KSM was. Also, the soldiers presumably know their training will end, and they won't be allowed to actually drown or left to rot in some dark, anonymous prison.
Some in Cheney's party, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), believe that waterboarding is torture. Malcolm Nance, a counterterrorism consultant for the U.S. government and a former SERE instructor, has argued repeatedly that waterboarding is torture and called for prohibiting its use on prisoners.
"Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration -- usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten[ed] with its use again and again," he said.
Cheney said the George W. Bush administration had received approval for the "enhanced interrogation program" from all nine congressional leaders who had been briefed on its details: this included the leaders of both intelligence committees, the leaders of both parties, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
When asked if they thought the program should be continued, they all said, "Absolutely," Cheney said. And when asked if the Bush administration should seek additional congressional approval for the program, the nine Congressional leaders unanimously told him, "Absolutely not," according to Cheney's account.
Cheney also said the Bush administration's interrogation policies were partially responsible for recent successes in the fight against al Qaeda, includig the killing of Osama bin Laden.
"I'd make the case we've been successful in part because of the intelligence we have, because of what we've learned from men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, back when he was subjected [to enhanced interrogation]," he said.
In the one-hour discussion at AEI with the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes, Cheney also talked about huddling with his wife and daughter at Camp David on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001. Camp David was the "secure, undisclosed location" that the Secret Service rushed Cheney to just after the attacks. Other top administration officials met him there over the follow days.
When asked if he ever broke down and cried in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, as had President George W. Bush and other top officials, Cheney said, "Not really," and then grinned sheepishly as the crowd giggled.
"You understand that people will find that peculiar," Hayes noted.
"It wasn't that it wasn't a deeply moving event," Cheney responded. "The training just sort of kicked in, in terms of what we had to do that morning and into the next day."
China's one-child policy has caused decades of sex-selective abortions and killing of baby girls that has resulted in over 30 million "unmarriageable" Chinese men, who are causing a rise in instability and sex trafficking, former ambassador and GOP presidential candidate John Huntsman wrote to Washington in a diplomatic cable newly released by WikiLeaks.
After Vice President Joe Biden said he was "not second-guessing" China's one-child policy during his trip to Beijing, all the GOP presidential candidates criticized both the policy and Biden, for seeming to endorse it. Even after Biden issued a clarification and called the policy "repugnant," House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said that was not enough and called on the administration to end its contributions to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).
But while Boehner and some GOP candidates are new to the debate over China's one-child policy, Huntsman, who served as Obama's ambassador in Beijing and who adopted a Chinese girl years ago, warned of the policy's grave implications in a January 2010 cable.
"Abnormally high sex ratio at birth and excess female child mortality both contribute directly to the sex ratio imbalance in China," Huntsman wrote. "Social consequences of this imbalance include an estimated excess of over 30 million unmarriageable males, a potentially destabilizing force that threatens to cause unrest in the most economically marginalized areas, and could lead to increased gender violence through demand for prostitution and trafficking in girls and women."
He said there is general agreement that the "abnormally high sex ratio" is due to the selective abortion of girls and the "excess female mortality," is caused by the killing of baby girls after they are born. Both are due to the "interaction of a strong cultural preference and pressure for sons with China's strict birth limitation policy," Huntsman said.
Due to the policy, Huntsman explained that there are about 32 million Chinese men under 20 years old who will not be able to find female partners and are called "bare branches." Richer, urbanized men attract the available women, Huntsman said, meaning that the single men who can't find women are usually found in poor and rural areas, searching for sex.
"Increased demand for sex workers and shortage of women to marry could lead to more trafficking of girls and women for future brides or the sex industry," the cable said, adding that while the Chinese government has begun talking about this problem, it has yet to take basic corrective steps, such as criminalizing sex-selective abortions.
While most politicians have cringed upon seeing their name in WikiLeaks cables, the Huntsman campaign sees the cable as reinforcing their message on China and human rights. A senior advisor to Huntsman told The Cable today that the diplomatic cable is evidence that as ambassador, Huntsman championed human rights far more than the administration.
"Not only was he advocating behind the scenes, but he publicly spoke out on behalf of dissidents and human rights, even in his farewell speech," said the advisor. "Given the vice president's recent comments on the one-child policy, it's clear the Obama administration is incapable of leading on this issue -- something Ambassador Huntsman is unquestionably prepared to do,"
In that farewell speech, Huntsman said that the United States will continue to advocate on behalf of imprisoned Chinese dissidents, explicitly naming Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng and Ai Weiwei, who has since been released.
"The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur. We do so not because we oppose China but, on the contrary, because we value our relationship," he said.
Huntsman campaign spokesman Tim Miller said that the campaign could not discuss confidential cables, but said that as an adoptive father whose daughter was abandoned by her parents in China, Huntsman was intimately familiar with the impact of the one-child policy.
"One-child runs counter to the fundamental value of human life and has myriad other negative consequences including an increase in sex trafficking and prostitution, as well as a destabilization of the family unit," Miller said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was criticized in early 2009 for seeming to back off the issue of human rights when dealing with the Chinese government. She said, "We know what they are going to say" and "Our pressing on those issues can't interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis."
More recently, administration officials have been more public in their criticisms of China's human rights practices, often talking about the case of Ai Weiwei. Clinton called China's human rights record "deplorable," in a May interview with the Atlantic. "They're worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand. They cannot do it. But they're going to hold it off as long as possible," she said.
Hundreds of supporters of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) movement converged on the State Department on Friday to hear former U.S. congressmen and senior officials call for the U.S. government to take the MEK off its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) emceed the rally in front of the State Department headquarters. The event also featured speeches by former Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA), former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former CIA Deputy Director of Clandestine Operations John Sano.
"One of the greatest moments was when my uncle, President [John F.] Kennedy, stood in Berlin and uttered the immortal words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,'" Kennedy exclaimed. "Today, I'm honored to repeat my uncle's words, by saying [translated from Farsi] ‘I am an Iranian,' ‘I am an Ashrafi."
The crowd erupted in cheers and applause and began chanting, "MEK yes, mullahs no! They are terrorists, they must go!"
Kennedy advocated taking the MEK off the terrorist list, which it has been on since 1997, and accused the Iraqi government of committing war crimes by killing innocent members of the MEK at Camp Ashraf. 3,400 MEK members live in the desert camp in Iraq under restrictive conditions.
"To my friends in the State Department behind us, who continue to hold fast to an old policy that is supported by Tehran, you are on the wrong side of history," Kennedy shouted. "To [Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki, your brutal and deadly assault on Camp Ashraf will land you in the International Criminal Court, where you will be held accountable."
"I love you," Kennedy told the crowd. "If you take the MEK off the list, you will unshackle a group that will help take out the mullahs in Iran."
Next up was Rendell, who called on the international community to militarily intervene in Camp Ashraf, comparing it to Muammar al-Qaddafi's assault on Benghazi earlier this year.
"The international community conducted a military intervention in Libya to protect innocent civilians. We should do the same thing to protect the innocent people in Camp Ashraf," Rendell said.
MEK leader Maryam Rajavi, who lives in Paris with her husband Massoud Rajavi (who hasn't been seen in public since 2003), is banned from traveling to the United States. But she spoke to the rally via a video message on a big screen, and accused the State Department of giving implicit permission to the Iranian and Iraqi governments to kill children.
"The terror listing in the U.S. is openly used as a justification to legitimize such bloodletting, by both the cruel mullahs as well as their proxy government in Iraqi," she said. "Therefore, the Iranian people are asking the United States, ‘Why are you not annulling the license to kill our children?'"
The Cable's informal headcount put the number of attendees at about 1,000 to 1,500, with long lines of young Iranian-Americans wearing shirts with photos of dead MEK members imprinted on them. Some attendees had photos of the Rajavis on their shirts. Add to that flags, confetti, and a full drum line.
We asked Kennedy if he had been paid for his appearance at the rally, but he refused to answer. Ali Safavi, president of a pro-MEK group Near East Policy Research, said the speakers were paid through a speakers bureau, which receives money from wealthy Iranian-Americans in the United States. He also said those Iranian-Americans work with the law firm DLA Piper, but he denied the allegation that DLA and these individuals help funnel money from the MEK to the former U.S. officials.
In a crowd made up of people who were mostly of Middle Eastern origin, a group of African-American attendees wearing MEK gear stood out. One man, who would only identify himself as "The Great Lonnell," was holding a "Delist the MEK" banner while wearing a shirt that said, "Behold the Great Beast."
"We are here representing on behalf of the Iranian community. This vicious dictator who is calling himself a president is murdering these people, he's slaying them, and nothing is getting done," the Great Lonnell said. "And they are here rallying to get the attention of a government that has deaf ears."
The Great Lonnell came to Washington from Staten Island, NY -- along with 200 people from a church he attends -- to support the MEK's struggle for human rights. He and his group have been attending MEK rallies for several months, he said.
The Great Lonnell then pulled your humble Cable guy aside and asked to pitch Foreign Policy another story.
"Do you want to write my own story?" he asked. "I am the Beast that will come to the earth, from Revelations in the Old Testament. I am that person."
The Cable was not able to confirm that The Great Lonnell was in fact the Beast from Revelations.
UPDATE: Zaid Jilani and Ali Gharib from ThinkProgress interviewed attendees at the rally, many who had tenuous if any links to the MEK and little understanding of why there were there. Many had traveled from far away on fully funded trips. Some appeared to be homeless. Watch the video here:
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
Russia has threatened the Obama administration that it will end cooperation on Iran and prevent the transfer of material to Afghanistan if Congress passes a law criticizing Russian human rights practices.
The White House argues that the U.S.-Russian "reset" of relations has had three positive results: the New START nuclear reductions treaty, Moscow's cooperation in sanctioning Iran, and approval (for a price) for U.S. military goods to transit Russian territory on the way to Afghanistan. But Russia is now using two of those three points as leverage to pressure the administration to get Congress not to pass a bill that would ban visas for Russian officials implicated in human rights crimes.
The legislation, called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, is named after the anti-corruption lawyer who was tortured and died in a Russian prison in 2009. The bill targets his captors, as well as any other Russian officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights."
The administration admitted the Russian threats in its official comments on the bill, obtained by the The Cable.
"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes," the document stated. "Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes."
"The Russian Duma has already proposed legislation that would institute similar travel bans and asset freezes for U.S. officials whose actions Russia deems in violations of the rights of Russian citizens arrested abroad and brought to the United States for trial," the administration said. "We have no way to judge the scope of these actions, but note that other U.S. national security interests will be affected by the passage of the S. 1039."
The Washington Post first reported the existence of the administration's comments today and led with the news that the State Department has quietly put Russian officials connected with the Magnitsky killing on a visa blacklist.
The blacklist appears to be a way for the administration to preempt further legislation. "Secretary Clinton has taken steps to ban individuals associated with the wrongful death of Sergey Magnitskiy from traveling to the United States. The Administration, therefore, does not see the need for this additional legislation," the administration said in its comments.
But in fact, the current bill no longer just includes officials connected to the Magnitsky case. The Senate version of the bill includes officials connected to a range of human rights cases in Russia, including the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an imprisoned Russian dissident.
The main sponsor of the Senate bill, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), said in an interview today with The Cable that he was now working to address the administration's concerns and he was not sure when the bill would see a committee markup or floor consideration.
"I'm working with the administration, working with the committee, and working with my fellow senators to determine how to proceed," he said. "Two things can change strategy: One is what happens in Russia, one is what happens in the State Department. Both are fluid at this point."
Meanwhile, the administration has another problem with the reset -- it must find a way to get Congress to repeal the 1974 "Jackson-Vanik" law, which was imposed to penalize the Soviet Union for its treatment of Jewish emigrants. That law stands in the way of designating Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, which is part of Moscow's bid to join the WTO.
NSC Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul, the administration's nominee for ambassador to Moscow, told The New Republic last month that he was open to the idea of some new law to pressure Russia on human rights as a replacement for Jackson-Vanik.
"Jackson-Vanik is an outdated mechanism," he said. "Let's have an updated mechanism that is more appropriate for 2011."
It's extremely doubtful that the GOP-led House would grant Russia PNTR status no matter what, meaning that the Magnitsky Act's value as a bargaining chip may be minimal. Either way, it's clear that the Obama administration places great value on maintaining the gains of the reset and doesn't want anything to get in the way.
"One of the core foreign policy objectives when we came into office was the Russia reset," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in May."It has been one of the most productive relationships for the United States."
The House Foreign Affairs Committee just spent two full days and nights marking up a State Department and foreign operations authorization bill in an effort that the committee's ranking Democrat says was a "waste of time" for a bill that has no chance of becoming law.
"There's no doubt that this was a bad bill as it started, and even though we knew it could get worse, we could not imagine it would get as bad as it did," Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), said in a Friday interview with The Cable.
Berman said that the original draft of the bill, which included sweeping restrictions on foreign aid to countries around the world, was bad enough. But the over 100 amendments introduced by GOP congressmen sent an even more harmful signal to the world, he said -- namely, that the United States wanted to disengage from international forums and punish countries that don't always agree with the U.S. government.
"The thinking [on the GOP side] is, ‘something happens I don't like, and the way to deal with it is I throw a tantrum.' It's a series of tantrums," Berman said. "It's an absence of a notion between what we're doing and what the consequences of what we're doing are. It's operating from a gut instinct and them not using their heads."
What's more, since the bill has so many provisions and amendments that would undo the Obama administration's foreign policy, it's destined to fail in the Democrat-led Senate, much less be signed by the president.
"This bill's never going to be law. We spent from morning until late night, two straight days and hundreds of hours surrounding that markup, dealing with amendments and language on something that will have no impact on U.S. foreign policy because it will never come close to becoming law," Berman said.
He compared it to his time as a student in the Young Democrats movement in college, when the group would have spirited policy debates and issue resolutions just for the sake of theater and practice. "At the end of the day it was just a piece of paper, and that's what this is," he said.
But unlike the Young Democrats of the 1960s, the HFAC markup in 2011 does have a real and negative effect on U.S. power and influence, Berman said, because those watching the debate assume it has real implications.
"It was a waste of time, but people around the world in other countries and other governments don't know that it's a total waste of time and will never become law and they think this is where U.S. policy is heading and they are going to react," he said.
"So even the act of doing this hurt American interests, because it creates anger and hostility and makes all the things we need to do more difficult."
Berman highlighted an amendment to the bill sponsored by Western Hemisphere subcommittee chairman Connie Mack (R-FL) that would withdraw all U.S. contributions to the Organization of American States, calling it a "very extreme position."
Berman also criticized another amendment that would prohibit assistance to countries that vote against America at the United Nations a majority of the time on any and all votes, pointing out that amendment would prevent the United States from sending aid to Jordan -- despite the fact that Jordan is among the most pro-Western Arab countries and a supporter of Middle East peace.
"Passing an amendment to prohibits any assistance in any country where any government votes against us at the U.N. more than 50 percent of the time... whose interest is that serving?" Berman said.
The U.N. amendment would also make aid to Pakistan would be impossible because Pakistan would fall into that category. But Berman pointed out that directly contradicted the committee's message when the committee voted39-5 not to cut off all assistance to Pakistan, rejecting an amendment by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.
"Faced with an opportunity to cut off all economic aid to Pakistan, they rejected it on an overwhelmingly vote. But in three other amendments that the majority supported, they cut off all aid to Pakistan," he said.
The bill also would impose a ban on funding for international organizations that offer abortion counseling to clients, a version of what's known as the Mexico City Policy. Berman called it the "Mexico City Policy on steroids," because it does not allow exemptions for HIV/AIDS funding.
Some of the bill's provisions that Berman thought most counterproductive were more local. For example, the bill would eliminate USAID's new budget office.
"We want a more efficient and focused development assistance, we want better controls, so let's make sure that the agency that's in charge of this can't function," said Berman, characterizing the provision as "going back to the goal of incapacitating USAID."
A spokesman for HFAC Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said she was unavailable for an interview on Friday due to her travel schedule.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi testified before the U.S. Congress for the first time ever today, via video, and called on the U.S. Congress to take a more active and clear-eyed look at the lack of democratic progress in Burma.
"What I would like to urge is that you look at what is happening in Burma in the light of the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, the recent one, which came out in March," she said, "This resolution covers all the needs of Burma today, all the political needs, let me say, of Burma today. The requests, the urgings, the demands of this resolution are very much in line with what we in Burma think is needed to start Burma along the genuine process of democratization. So, if you are to consider this resolution very, very closely, and then, if you were to look at the present situation in Burma, you would have a very good idea of how far we are along the path to democracy, if we have started on that path at all."
She referred to the resolution to highlight the issues of political prisoners, freedom of association and information, independence of the judiciary, and the right of the U.N. human rights rapporteur to visit Burma. She called on the U.S. Congress to help ensure that the provisions of the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution are met and that a commission of inquiry into the human rights situation in Burma is established.
"True friends are those who share your values and who understand why you hold onto these values in spite of all the difficulties you have to face," she said. "With the help and support of true friends, I'm sure we will be able to trade the path of democracy, not easily, and perhaps not as quickly as we would like. But surely, and steadily."
In live testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Asia Subcommittee, Aung Din, the executive director of U.S. Campaign for Burma, called on the U.S. government to get tougher with the Burmese regime and enforce sanctions more strictly.
"I support the United States policy of engaging with the regime while maintaining sanctions. But, as I have reminded from the beginning, engagement should have a time frame, clear benchmarks and it should involve an appropriate measure to respond for any development," he said. "However, as of today, the existing sanctions are still not fully implemented yet, the engagement remains open ended, and I don't see any effort by the U.S. government to exercise the pressure in a more effective and well-coordinated way. The regime knows very well how to manipulate the current form of engagement."
Subcommittee Chairman Don Manzullo (R-IL) opened the hearing by noting the lack of progress in U.S.-Burma relations despite the Obama administration's engagement policy.
"Since the Obama Administration began its policy of pragmatic engagement in 2009, U.S. relations with Burma have not changed," he said. "If proponents of pragmatic engagement are correct, then Burmese leaders should recognize this unprecedented opportunity being offered by the Obama Administration and seek to improve relations with the U.S. by demonstrating tangible change. Unfortunately, this is not the case."
As U.S. contributions to the United Nations and its participation in the controversial Human Rights Council (HRC) are under attack in the Congress, a top State Department official said on Wednesday that U.S. engagement at the HRC has been effective and benefited Israel.
"U.N. bodies, including the Human Rights Council, have improved as the result of direct U.S. engagement. If we cede ground, if our engagement in the U.N. system is restricted -- these bodies likely would be dominated by our adversaries," said Esther Brimmer, the assistant secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Prior to the U.S. decision to join the HRC in 2009, Israel was singled out for six special sessions intended to single out Israeli actions for condemnation, there were too many unbalanced resolutions focused on Israel, and too little attention paid to the world's worst human rights situations, she said.
But now, Brimmer contended the situation was getting better: "The challenges continue at the Council, but the Council's improvement through U.S. engagement is undeniable."
She highlighted the council's decision on Wednesday to issue a statement calling on the Syrian government to allow access to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and referred to "daily reports of killings, arbitrary detention, and torture of men, women, and children."
Most of Brimmer's speech focused on what she called "the administration's far reaching efforts to normalize Israel's status in and across the U.N. and the broader multilateral system."
Brimmer also criticized congressional efforts to withhold U.S. funding for the United Nations, an effort led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
"The United States must maintain the strongest position it can at the U.N., and that means paying its bills on time and in full," she said. "How could we have won tough Security Council sanctions on Iran or North Korea if we were continuing to incur arrears?"
"How would it impact the president's commitment to a shared security with Israel?" Brimmer said. "These are risks we cannot afford to take. The United States cannot afford failed short-term tactics that have long-term implications for our security, and we must be a responsible global leader, and that means paying our bills."
UPDATE: Ecclestone now says the race is a no-go due to the opposition of the racing teams. "Of course it's not on," the BBC quotes him saying.
On Friday, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the governing body for the world of motor sports, announced its decision to return the Bahrain Grand Prix to the island Gulf nation, which has been rocked by unrest, brutal human rights abuses, and a deepening sectarian divide since protests broke out on Feb. 14.
In making its decision, the FIA sent a "fact-finding mission" to Bahrain in late May to determine whether it would be safe to hold the race, which was canceled earlier this year amid the violence. According to Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, quoted in the Guardian, "The FIA sent people out there to check on the situation, they came back and reported everything is fine."
The report, a copy of which was provided to FP by the New York-based human rights group Avaaz, was signed by FIA Vice President Carlos Gracia, who traveled to Bahrain on May 30 and May 31 along with an assistant, Carlos Abella.
It appears to be a complete whitewash.
According to the report, Gracia and Abella met with several government officials, including Minister of Culture Mai bint Mohammed al-Khalifa, Interior Minister Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, Public Security Chief Maj. Gen. Tariq bin Dana, Bahrain International Circuit Chairman Zayed R. al-Zayani, and BIC CEO Salman bin Eissa al-Khalifa -- and seem to have accepted their views uncritically.
They also met with Tariq al-Saffar of the pro-grovernment National Institute of Human Rights, who was appointed in 2010 by King Hamad. (Saffar is also managing director of advertising firm Fortune Promoseven, which lists the F1 Grand Prix as a client.)
Gracia and Abella did dine with several unnamed foreign business leaders -- a dinner arranged by their government host -- but met with zero members of the opposition or with independent rights groups, and did not tour Shiite neighborhoods that have reportedly been under siege for weeks, though they did visit a shopping mall.
Nonetheless, they concluded, "Life in Bahrain is completely normal again" -- an observation at odds with copious reporting on the state of fear that has gripped the country since Saudi troops intervened in late March.
Other questionable assertions: "Security is guaranteed" ... "visitor figures have returned to the same level -- and are even increasing -- when compared against figures in previous years" ... "atmosphere of total calm and stability" ... "the presence of military forces was limited to a few, certain, strategic points."
In perhaps their most ludicrous claim, the fact-finders found "NO indication of any problems or reason why Bahrain's F1 Grand Prix should not return to the 2011 Calendar."
Human Rights Watch Deputy Director Tom Porteous, in a May 26 letter to FIA chairman Jean Todt, urged the FIA to consider the government's harsh crackdown in making its decision.
"The government's violent suppression of all protests in mid-March, in which some two dozen persons were killed, mostly protesters or bystanders at the hands of security forces, has featured large-scale arbitrary arrests, protracted incommunicado detention, and credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment of persons in custody," Porteous wrote.
That advice seems to have been ignored.
"Formula 1 wanted to be told that everything is fine, and that's the answer they got," said Rutgers University assistant professor Toby Jones, an expert on Bahrain.
The Bahraini regime has presented the return of the Grand Prix as a major victory, a stamp of approval from an international community that has largely condemned the crackdown.
But holding the race may have been a miscalculation, warned Jones, "because it gives the protesters a date to rally around."
The race is now scheduled for October 30, but a change of heart by Ecclestone and growing opposition from racing teams could see it canceled yet again.
President Obama was due to meet Bahrain's crown prince on Tuesday.
President Barack Obama is set to meet with Russian President Dmitri Medvdev on May 26 in France on the sidelines of the G-8 meetings. In advance of that meeting, Congress has unveiled a new bill to force the administration to sanction Russian officials for human rights violations.
"One of the core foreign policy objectives when we came into office was the Russia reset," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters on a conference call on Friday. "It has been one of the most productive relationships for the United States in terms of the signing and ratification of the New START treaty, cooperation on nuclear security, cooperation with regard to Iran sanctions and nonproliferation generally, the northern distribution network into Afghanistan that supports our effort there, and our discussions with Russia about expanding trade ties and their interest in joining the WTO, as well as Russia's increased cooperation with NATO that was manifested by the NATO-Russia meetings in Lisbon."
But Rhodes didn't mention what most in Congress see as Russia's backsliding on issues of democracy, freedom of the press, and human rights. A large group of senators introduced a bill on Thursday afternoon that they hope will force the administration to address this issue. Called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, it is named after the anti-corruption lawyer who was tortured and died in a Russian prison in 2009. The bill targets his captors as well as any other Russian officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights."
"Despite occasional rhetoric from the Kremlin, the Russian leadership has failed to follow through with any meaningful action to stem rampant corruption or bring the perpetrators of numerous and high-profile human rights abuses to justice," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) said in a Thursday floor statement announcing the bill.
"My legislation simply says that if you are commit gross violations of human rights, don't expect to visit Disneyland, Aspen, or South Beach and expect your accounts to be frozen if you bank with us."
The bill requires the secretary of State to compile a list of names of human rights abusers in Russia, deny them visas, and requires the secretary of Treasury to do the same and freeze their bank accounts. The legislation would also bar their wives, sons, daughters, and other immediate family members from coming to the United States. The hope is that this legislation would spur similar action from the European Union.
The bill also outlines abuses by Russian officials in the treatment of several other Russian political prisoners, including Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose appeal to his 14-year jail sentence was postponed this week by a Moscow court.
Other co-sponsors of the bill include Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Mark Begich (D-AK), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Bob Casey (D-PA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Mike Johanns (R-NE), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tom Udall (D-NM), Roger Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Roger Wicker (R-MS).
Last month, Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) reintroduced the House version of The Magnitsky Act, which "imposes visa and economic sanctions on Russian state officials who are responsible for human rights abuses, torture and the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky in November 2009."
The Obama administration hasn't commented publicly on the bill, but The New Republic reported that NSC Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul is supportive. "We actually agree with those in Congress who are concerned about the erosion of democracy in Russia," he told TNR, adding, "It was bad when we got here, but it is bad today."
The bill could also be a substitute for 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 Russia's accession to the WTO.
Kirk told The Cable in a Friday interview that this bill was one part of a larger effort in Congress to reassert itself on the issues of democracy and human rights in Russia.
"It's needed because Russia has slowly devolved into a one party state with a very strong ruler, and that leads to arrogance and a very aggressive anti-U.S. foreign policy, which is becoming increasing difficult to deal with," he said. And who was he referring to? "The real ruler of Russia: Putin."
For the third time in two years, hundreds of Chinese officials are meeting with hundreds of their U.S. counterparts to discuss dozens of bilateral topics in dozens of meetings. After the first day of the two-day event, there aren't any new bilateral agreements to announce, and officials say there aren't any expected soon.
"Now more than ever, with two years of dialogues behind us, success depends on our ability to translate good words into concrete actions on the issues that matter most to our people. So as we begin this third round, we will keep that goal in clear focus," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her Monday morning remarks at the opening of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which is being held at various locations in downtown Washington.
She praised the new high level participation of senior officials from China's People's Liberation Army and rattled off a long list of issues that would be discussed, including: military-to-military relations, the situation in the Middle East, the need to rebalance the global economy, Iran sanctions, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and human rights.
Vice President Joseph Biden delivered the strongest message on Chinese human rights practices in his Monday morning remarks, when he said, "We have vigorous disagreement in the area of human rights."
"We've noted our concerns about the recent crackdown in China, including attacks, arrests and the disappearance of journalists, lawyers, bloggers and artists," Biden said. "I recognize that some in China see our advocacy [on] human rights as an intrusion and Lord only knows what else. But President Obama and I believe strongly, as does the secretary, that protecting fundamental rights and freedoms such as those enshrined in China's international commitments, as well as in China's own constitution, is the best way to promote long-term stability and prosperity of any society."
Jeffrey Bader, the recently departed senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, wrote in a Brookings Institution policy brief that the dialogue "was not conceived as a mechanism to deal with bilateral crises or to produce specific ‘deliverables,' but to develop a richer, more intensive dialogue between senior officials on the two sides than would be possible in the usual quick in-and-out visits, and to break down bureaucratic stovepipes among agencies, particularly on the Chinese side, not accustomed to coordinating effectively with each other."
On Sunday, Clinton awarded Bader the Secretary's Distinguished Service Award, standing alongside Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo.
Critics of the Obama administration's China policy see the event as yet another example of the administration placing style over substance, and raising expectations of progress in the U.S.-China relationship without delivering results.
"By far the most important economic issue for America and China is the related imbalances in our economies," wrote the Heritage Foundation's Derek Scissors. "The U.S. recognized this several years ago and has repeatedly raised the matter. Result: Both economies are now more imbalanced than when the dialogue began. The main reason is simple: Neither country wants to bear the pain of rebalancing. Instead, they take to telling the other side why it should rebalance."
A senior administration official, speaking to reporters after the conclusion of the first day's meetings, said that the primary discussion of tough economic issues will be held on Tuesday.
"Tomorrow the focus is on how the U.S. and China can rebalance our economies so we can strengthen our recoveries. Monetary and exchange rate policies are certainly be a focus of those discussions," the official said. But he warned not expect any major announcements. "[The Chinese currency] is not moving enough and no one's satisfied, but it's appreciated more than 5 percent against the dollar [over the last year]," he noted.
Undersecretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs Robert Hormats took the Chinese to task for their policy of giving regulatory, financial, and legislative support to state-owned enterprises.
"The biggest challenge in addressing these issues effectively is forging a common understanding that state-controlled competition is not competition, and that competitiveness cannot be bestowed by decree. The trade distortions created by the ‘China Model' are disadvantageous to our U.S. companies trying to compete for opportunities around the world, and a direct threat to U.S. jobs and competitiveness," Hormats said.
And Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday afternoon that climate change, specifically short-term climate change forces, was a major topic of discussion between Energy Secretary Stephen Chu and his Chinese counterparts.
As for the military component of the talks, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters last week that the United States intends to engage "not just traditional players in the Foreign Ministry but also other players in the Chinese government, including the military."
Dan Blumenthal, a former China desk officer at the Pentagon and now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that while increased military dialogue and the building of relationships is good, the administration must not depend on such dialogue to halt the growing tension in the bilateral security relationship.
"The Chinese are moving very cautiously, the political leadership in China is very adverse to making any bold decisions, and the PLA has very little interest in talking to us about anything of substance," he said. "The summits matter less than what we are doing on the ground in response to what China is doing."
Attorney General Eric Holder blamed Congress on Monday for preventing the Obama administration from closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and forcing the United States to prosecute 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Cuba through a military commission and not in a civilian court. The move effectively ended Obama's promise to close the prison, by ensuring that it will be needed for trials for years to come.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a former Air Force judge advocate general who once supported closing the Guantanamo prison, said on Tuesday that it was the administration that refused to work with its allies on Capitol Hill, including himself, to establish a bipartisan legal framework to facilitate holding detainees indefinitely without trial, conduct military commissions, and in some cases, civilian trials. He said that administration officials sabotaged his negotiations with the White House in early 2009.
"We came really close, quite frankly. I just think there are people in the White House, second-level down, who were very resistant to the idea of legitimizing that we were at war," Graham told The Cable in an exclusive interview on Tuesday.
"When I met with then President-elect Obama there was a way forward. But you had to prove to the American people that you could find a new jail site with a legal system that was national security-centric, and they've never been able to embrace a national security-centric legal system," Graham said.
The sticking point, according to Graham, was that the Obama administration could never reach a solution to the problem of how to deal with prisoners that cannot be tried but who are too dangerous to release. If they were to be brought into the United States, the civilian legal system could not indefinitely detain them.
"We need an indefinite detention statute that can give these people some due process but also recognize this is legitimate during war," said Graham. "All things being equal, I wish we could have found a new jail to get that chapter behind us."
Either way, Graham said, there was no way that Congress would have allowed the trial of KSM to be moved into the federal criminal court system, also known as Article 3 trials.
"There are plenty of places for Article 3 trials in this war on terror, just not with him," said Graham. "If he's not an enemy combatant, who would be?"
Graham is not alone in his contention that the Obama administration never seriously engaged Congress to help close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Throughout 2009, Democratic supporters of closing the prison at Gitmo felt abandoned as they unsuccessfully fought attempts by the GOP to insert language into congressional appropriations bills that prevented the government from spending any money to move Guantanamo prisoners to the United States.
During those debates, leading advocates of closing the facility, such as Rep. James Moran (D-VA), often complained that they could not get proper communication from either the Defense Department or the Justice Department to help them make the case.
White House counsel Greg Craig was fired at the end of 2009 for failing to implement Obama's Guantanamo promise, but Moran told The Cable at the time that the White House never really put a strong effort behind the policy.
"Greg Craig shouldn't have taken the fall over this issue," Moran told The Cable in Nov. 2009. "He thought that people would understand why it was in our nation's interest to close Guantanamo. But when things started to unwind, Greg was left there holding the ball all by himself."
President Obama laid out the rationale for military action against Libya Friday afternoon, arguing that the coming attacks would be limited to protecting the Libyan people and preventing the violence there from destabilizing the region.
Obama repeatedly emphasized that the military intervention will be led by Europe and the Arab states, based on the U.N. Security Council resolution passed 10-0 Thursday evening.
"Muammar Qaddafi has a choice," Obama said. "The resolution that passed lays out very clear conditions that must be met. The United States, the United Kingdom, France and Arab states agree that a cease-fire must be implemented immediately. That means all attacks against civilians must stop. Qaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi; pull them back from Adjadbiya, Misrata and Zawiya; and establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas. Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach the people of Libya."
"Let me be clear, these terms are not negotiable. These terms are not subject to negotiation. If Qaddafi does not comply with the resolution, the international community will impose consequences, and the resolution will be enforced through military action," Obama said.
Many in Washington have called for Obama to spell out exactly why military intervention in Libya is related to U.S. core national interests, including Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), who came out against attacking Libya Thursday. Obama directly addressed this point in his remarks.
"Now, here's why this matters to us," he said. "Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Qaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Paris on Saturday to meet with her European and Arab counterparts to coordinate enforcement of the resolution, Obama said. The resolution also strengthens the arms embargo on the Libyan regime. British, French, and Arab League leaders have agreed to take the leadership role in enforcing the resolution, Obama added.
The military action will explicitly not be used to drive Qaddafi from power, the president said.
"The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya, and we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal, specifically the protection of civilians in Libya," said Obama.
In remarks Friday morning, Clinton indicated that more may have to be done beyond the no-fly zone and no-drive zone currently being set up over Libya. "While this resolution is an important step, it is only that -- an important step. We and our partners will continue to explore the most effective measures to end this crisis," she said.
Qaddafi's foreign minister Musa Kusa Friday declared a cease fire and a halt to all military operations, but Clinton rejected that declaration. "We are going to be not responsive or impressed by words. We would have to see actions on the ground. And that is not yet at all clear," she said.
The White House announced a new policy on Monday for moving forward with the trials of some prisoners at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, while also setting forth a new process for keeping tabs on the prisoners who won't be tried or released anytime soon.
President Barack Obama's administration is framing the move as a continuation of its pledge to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But by restarting new military commission trials and reforming the procedures to deal with prisoners who are set to remain there for years, the administration is implicitly acknowledging that the prison isn't being shuttered in the near future.
"Today, I am announcing several steps that broaden our ability to bring terrorists to justice, provide oversight for our actions, and ensure the humane treatment of detainees," Obama said in a statement. The new policy will be implemented through an order by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates allowing for the resumption of military tribunals, and an executive order that updates the process for reviewing the threat posed by prisoners at Guantanamo.
Five senior administration officials explained the details of the new policy in a conference call with reporters on Monday afternoon. They made the case that the president is still committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, as he affirmed in his May 2009 speech at the National Archives.
"The President does remain committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, based on the judgment of our military commanders and our national security team that it hinders our security in the long run," a senior administration official said.
For those prisoners who the U.S. government is not prepared to prosecute but cannot be released due to concerns they still pose a threat, the administration is establishing a new "periodic review board," made up of representatives from the Departments of Defense, Justice, State, and Homeland Security, to assess whether each prisoner's detention "is necessary to protect against a significant threat to the security of the United States." Every prisoner will receive a full review within one year of today and another full review every three years.
The new prisoner periodic review boards are an effort to reform the administrative review boards, which have been used to judge whether prisoners should be held without trial up until now. However, it is still unclear how this policy will be implemented.
The administration contends that civilian courts could still be used for terror trials, but there are no definite plans to do so right now.
"We are reaffirming our commitment to Article III (civilian) courts as a fundamental tool of American justice and as a tool that the government has to bring terrorists to justice has been the case frequently in recent months and years," another senior administration official said.
In a related move, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that she asked the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to begin work to ratify Additional Protocol II to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which mandates stricter enforcement measures to guarantee the humane treatment of prisoners. She also announced that the United States will voluntarily adhere to the norms established under Article 75 of Protocol I in international armed conflicts, which also prohibits inhumane treatment of prisoners.
"These steps we take today are not about who our enemies are, but about who we are: a nation committed to providing all detainees in our custody with humane treatment," Clinton said in a statement.
Military law experts said that the Obama administration's moves represent progress in its efforts to break the legal logjam at Guantanamo Bay, but also an admission that the president's stated goal of quickly closing the prison will be again delayed.
The administration's decision to implement its new policy through executive order also bypassed efforts to involve Congress in the decision-making process.
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that the administration had promised to work with Congress to establish a new process for military commissions that updates the 2006 military commissions law, but now they've decided to simply push forward on their own.
"It's the beginning of a breaking of a paralysis that has been devastating for this administration on this subject," said Wittes. "But it's only a beginning and whether they break further free remains to be seen."
Vice President Joseph Biden argued on Thursday for forceful and early international intervention to prevent governments from committing atrocities, but didn't explicitly make the case for such intervention in Libya.
"I got in trouble when I said, during the Bosnia crisis, coming back from meeting Milosevic... that when a state engages in atrocity, it forfeits its sovereignty," Biden told an audience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where he was speaking at an event honoring the late Congressman Tom Lantos.
"And it was viewed at the time as somehow being contrary to the notions of the principles of the United Nations Charter that you forfeit your sovereignty," Biden said. "I remember the first person to call me as I was being roundly criticized was Tom Lantos, [who said,] ‘Keep it up, Joe.'"
Biden lauded the Obama administration for creating a senior-level position inside the National Security Council to coordinate what he referred to as new, stronger policies on preventing, identifying, and responding to mass atrocities and genocide.
"Too often in the past, these efforts have come too late, after the best and least costly opportunities to prevent them have been missed," Biden said. "First, we must recognize early indicators of potential atrocities and respond accordingly, rather than waiting until we are confronted by massacres like those in Rwanda or in Srebrenica."
He referenced the same two examples of genocide that Anne-Marie Slaughter, former top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, referred to when calling for international intervention in Libya. Biden criticized the international community for waiting so long to stop the killing of civilians in those cases.
"It's amazing how in the Balkans it took so long," Biden said. "Our administration also believes that holding perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable is an essential component of our prevention efforts. And that's why we have to reinvigorate efforts to bring some of the worst war criminals to justice."
While Biden lamented the international community's slow response to past instances of atrocities, he didn't explicitly name Libya's Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi as a candidate for such a response or explain how the administration's atrocity prevention policy would be applied in the current Arab world crisis. Rather, he repeated the administration's message that the international community must uphold three overarching principles with regards to Libya: an end to violence, protection of universal rights, and progress toward political reform.
"The Holocaust and the legacy are not only a part of our country's history, this country's history, but they continue to inform our approach to events today. They stiffen our resolve and our conscience, God willing, in the face of atrocities wherever and whenever they occur," Biden said.
He also quoted Lantos on the issue.
"‘The veneer of civilization is paper-thin,' Lantos often said. We are the guardians, and we can never rest."
The Obama administration is considering a range of options for pressuring the Libyan regime to stop massacring civilians -- including sanctions, asset freezes, and perhaps even the establishment of an international no-fly zone. But according to a senior NSC official, armed intervention in Libya is not on the table.
The calls are increasing in Washington for the Obama administration to take new, stronger measures to punish the Libyan government led by Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi for atrocities and to protect Libyan civilians.
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) implored Obama on in a press conference to establish a no-fly zone in Libya, abandon its recognition of the Qaddafi government, transfer recognition to a transitional government formed by the rebels as soon as possible, and provide the opposition with support, including weapons.
"The government of Libya, epitomized by Muammar Qaddafi is massacring some of his people. There is very little doubt about Mr. Qaddafi's commitment to remaining in power no matter how much blood has to be shed," McCain said on behalf of both senators at a Friday press conference in Jerusalem.
"When a government massacres its own people, it loses its legitimacy. So, we should no longer recognize the existing government of Libya."
Lieberman added that the no-fly zone should be organized by NATO and he compared the ongoing killing of civilians in Libya to the genocide perpetrated by Serbia during the 1990s that eventually resulted in a NATO bombing campaign.
"I think in that sense it is very important that we not just make statements about the massacre that is occurring in Libya but that we lead an international coalition to do something," Lieberman said. "What is happening in Libya today reminds me what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. We in the United States decided that we could not simply stand by and watch a government massacre its people."
Back in Washington, Vice President Joseph Biden lamented on Thursday that NATO intervention in the Balkans didn't come sooner, when it could have saved more lives.
"It's amazing how in the Balkans it took so long," Biden told an audience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. "First, we must recognize early indicators of potential atrocities and respond accordingly, rather than waiting until we are confronted by massacres like those in Rwanda or in Srebrenica."
Former State Department Policy Planning Chief Anne-Marie Slaughter also compared the violence in Libya to the Balkans and the 1994 Rwandan genocide in a Thursday tweet.
"The international community cannot stand by and watch the massacre of Libyan protesters. In Rwanda we watched. In Kosovo we acted," Slaughter tweeted.
Also on Friday, a bipartisan group of senior mostly-Republican foreign policy experts penned an open letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to make good on his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, when he said, "Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later."
The experts asked Obama to call on NATO to urgently develop plans to establish an air and naval presence in Libya, freeze all Libyan government assets in the U.S. and Europe, consider halting Libyan oil imports, pledge to hold Qaddafi responsible for any atrocities, and speed humanitarian aid to the Libyan people.
"With violence spiraling to new heights, and with the apparent willingness of the Qaddafi regime to use all weapons at its disposal against the Libyan people, we may be on the threshold of a moral and humanitarian catastrophe," the experts wrote. "Inaction, or slow and inadequate measures, may not only fail to stop the slaughter in Libya but will cast doubt on the commitment of the United States and Europe to basic principles of human rights and freedoms."
The letter was signed by several senior GOP former officials, including Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, Eric Edelman, Eliot Cohen, Jamie Fly and Scott Carpenter, human rights activities David Kramer and Neil Hicks, and Clinton administration official John Shattuck.
"The United States and our European allies have a moral interest in both an end to the violence and an end to the murderous Libyan regime. There is no time for delay and indecisiveness," they wrote. "The people of Libya, the people of the Middle East, and the world require clear U.S. leadership in this time of opportunity and peril."
Full text of the letter after the jump:
As protests rage in Bahrain and Libya, the U.S. government's stance toward democracy in the Arab world is evolving, even in Congress. On Wednesday, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said that the United States must abandon its decades-old habit of supporting autocrats.
"The old days of ‘as long as we can make a positive relationship with the autocrat who's running the place, then we are friends with the country' are dead and gone," Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) told a group of reporters over breakfast on Wednesday.
"We have to be much more interested in trying to get the actual populations in those countries to be supportive of us," Smith said. "What we have to start thinking about in the foreign policy establishment is what shifts in our foreign policy do we need to make to target the populations."
Smith said that over the last decades, the U.S. policy of supporting regimes that abused power turned many Arabs against the United States and bolstered often violent opposition movements, some of which could now be poised to take power.
"It was a long term bad strategy... We were winning the battle but losing the war," Smith said. "There's a reason we opted in the past for the ‘Let's just make friends with the autocrat' approach. It's much easier."
But Smith, who represents the district where the U.S. Army base of Fort Lewis is located, defended military aid to countries including Jordan, Pakistan, and Israel as useful tools of American influence.
Smith also said that military aid to Cairo must continue while the Egyptian military undertakes the process of reform. "Where Egypt is concerned, it's going to depend on what their government ultimately looks like," Smith said. "Right now, today? Yes."
Smith admitted the difficulty of supporting popular Arab movements while also defending U.S. interests, laying out several concerns he had about the largest and most organized Egyptian opposition group -- the Muslim Brotherhood.
"One of the things to understand about [the Muslim Brotherhood's approach in Egypt... their ultimate goals haven't changed," Smith said. "I don't think the people of Egypt want to trade one totalitarian group for another... we have a definite interest in making sure that doesn't happen."
When the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo was raided by state security forces on Thursday, Human Rights Watch researcher Daniel Williams was swept up in the arrests. But before he was carted off to prison, Williams had the presence of mind to call a friend in Cairo and leave his cell phone line open, to broadcast the raid as it unfolded.
The Law Center is a hub and meeting space for various human rights and civil society groups in Egypt and has been amazingly active since the protests began Jan. 25. On Thursday morning, a joint squad of police and military personnel in their respective uniforms raided the Center, interrogated all inside, and forcibly transported dozens of Egyptians and foreigners alike to an unknown detention facility, where Williams remains now.
Before his cell phone was confiscated, the person on the other end of the line, who must remain anonymous for his own safety, heard the violent details of the incident. Police and army personnel were heard ordering the activists up against the wall, started yelling at them, and then claimed they were there to protect them from the pro-regime thugs who were assembled and chanting just outside the doors and who harassed the activists as they were escorted from the building.
"We could let you go out in the crowd and they will kill you or you can come with us," the police and army personnel said, according to Human Rights Watch Washington Director Tom Malinowski, who has been working furiously to try to free Williams and the others arrested in Thursday's crackdown by coordinating efforts with administration officials and human rights groups in Washington and Cairo.
Following the on-site interrogations, the police and army personnel accused all the Egyptians working at the Law Center of being affiliated with Hamas and accused all the foreigners at the Center of being affiliated with Israeli intelligence service Mossad.
"So it's a Hamas-Mossad conspiracy apparently," Malinowski told The Cable with a sigh.
Meanwhile, human rights groups in Washington have been working closely though a stream of emails and phone call with the Obama administration to share information, coordinate action, and press the Mubarak regime to halt the arrests and release the imprisoned activists and journalists.
Primarily, this effort by the administration is run out of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, where Ambassador Margaret Scobey has taken the lead on maintaining ties to Egyptian non-governmental organizations and political opposition groups, instructing her staff to reach out to them to make sure they are safe and sharing information about what's going on. There are also officials in the State Department and the National Security Council who have longstanding ties with these groups and are working the phones on a constant basis, an administration official said, declining to provide details of those interactions.
"The Obama administration has raised with the Egyptian government the need to release people who have been detained for peaceful activism or journalism," Malinowski said. The list of foreign journalists reported to be under arrest is changing moment to moment.
For those in the human rights community who have been watching the crisis in Egypt descend into violence, the regime is clearly responsible.
"What we've seen in the last 24 hours is a counter attack by the ruling party and security apparatus of Egypt, which may be willing to concede Mubarak but isn't willing to concede the dictatorship," said Malinowski. "These thugs are part of the ruling party's army, they deploy it routinely on election days to intimidate voters and they deployed it yesterday as well."
The reported direct involvement of the Egyptian military in the raids is unsettling because until yesterday, the military had been largely neutral in the clashes between the pro-Mubarak and anti-regime groups. But it's not known if they are totally complicit in the crackdown or if they are participating in order to prevent the police from becoming too brutal.
The Obama administration is working hard behind the scenes, especially through senior defense officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to impress upon the Egyptian military the need to protect protestors and support a peaceful government transition. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen spoke Wednesday with Egyptian Army Lt. Gen. Sami Enan about the clashes and the military's role.
"He assures me that they're very focused on this, and they will continue to be a stabilizing influence within their country," Mullen said after the call. "So far, the Egyptian military have handled themselves exceptionally well."
But in light of the raid on the Law Center, human rights activists are no longer sure the military is neutral.
"The military's stance toward yesterday's counterattack is ambiguous," Malinowski said. "But as bad as things are, they would be worse if not for the pressure the administration has been putting on the military."
Meanwhile, the Egypt Working Group, a bipartisan team of experts that has been advising the administration, issued a new statement on Thursday calling on the White House to make clear that military aid to Egypt will be suspended if the military fails to protect peaceful protests and the transition doesn't start promptly -- as the administration has demanded.
For those who are working to secure the safety of activists like Williams, how the Egyptian military acts during these crackdowns will expose what their true motivations are going forward.
"This is an important part of the larger picture that the administration is looking at. It's one test of whether the regime, which includes the military, is in fact heeding President Obama's call for transition to orderly democracy."
The White House sent former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner to Cairo, where he is now holding high-level meetings with Egyptian officials at the behest of the Obama administration.
"Frank Wisner is in Cairo. The U.S. government did ask him to go," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor confirmed to The Cable. "As someone with deep experience in the region, he is meeting with a Egyptian officials and providing his assessment."
Earlier on Monday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley declined to name Wisner as an official representative of the Obama administration, but explained that Wisner was sent both to deliver the administration's message to Mubarak's people and to bring back information to be fed back into the decision making process.
"We have asked him to add his perspective to our analysis on current developments," Crowley said. "He has traveled to Cairo; is on the ground now. And we look forward to hearing his views when he returns."
Wisner is not officially an "envoy," Crowley noted, and administration officials declined to specify exactly who he would meet with, such as embattled President Hosni Mubarak or presidential candidate-in-waiting Mohamed ElBaradei. But Crowley said Wisner was chosen due to his longstanding ties to the Mubarak regime.
"He's a private citizen, he's a retired diplomat, he's a former ambassador to Egypt, he knows some of the key players within the Egyptian government," Crowley said, adding that Wisner "has a history with some of these key figures."
Council on Foreign Relations Egypt expert Steven Cook put it plainly. "Wisner is known to be close to Mubarak," he said.
It's exactly that history that concerns Egypt hands in Washington now that Wisner's has been given a new role in the center of Obama's policy. Before his stints on Enron's board of directors and as vice chairman of AIG, Wisner had a multi-decade career as a foreign service officer, with stints as ambassador in Zambia (‘79-‘82), Egypt (‘86-‘91), Philippines (‘91-‘92), India (‘94-‘97) and as undersecretary of defense for policy (‘93-‘94).
Since leaving AIG in 2009, Wisner has been active on Egypt policy and is said by several Egypt hands in Washington to have pushed to create a group of scholars and academics in Washington to advocate for strengthening ties to the Mubarak regime. That group, which was never fully formed, was to be a counter weight to the bipartisan Egypt Working Group led by the likes of former NSC official Elliott Abrams and the Carnegie Endowment's Michele Dunne. The Abrams-Dunne group had been pushing for a harder line against Mubarak in the months leading up to the current crisis.
Wisner's advocacy for reaching out to Mubarak was on display at a private and off-the-record meeting on Egyptian succession held last summer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where Wisner made several pro-Mubarak arguments, according to two people who attended the session.
"He's the exact wrong person to send. He is an apologist for Mubarak," said one Washington Middle East hand who saw Wisner as unlikely to demand that Mubarak must step down or else suffer consequences from Washington -- or, failing that, deliver a strong rebuke.
But Dunne said that since Wisner is "trusted and liked" by Mubarak and others he'll be meeting with, he's the perfect pseudo-envoy. "He's ... someone who could deliver a tough message if he's given one to deliver," she said.
Wisner's father, Frank Wisner Sr., was the CIA agent portrayed in the film The Good Shepherd. Wisner was previously married to Christine de Ganay, former wife of Pal Sarkozy, the father of French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The National Security Staff discussed how the Obama administration might approach a future Egyptian government if President Hosni Mubarak steps down with a group of foreign policy experts in a White House meeting on Monday morning. But the Obama administration believes that Washington's fingerprints shouldn't be seen anywhere near what they increasing expect will be the end of Mubarak's rule.
The Cable spoke with three of the experts who attended Monday morning's session, which included Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, NSS Senior Director for Multilateral Engagement Samantha Power and NSS Senior Director Dan Shapiro. The experts inside the meeting represented a cross section of views in Washington and included several members of the bipartisan Egypt Working Group, a group that has been pushing for more administration clarity on Egypt policy over the recent months.
All three participants who spoke with The Cable said that the meeting was intense and constructive, that a real debate over the path forward for U.S. policy ensued, and that the White House staff leading the meeting indicated -- but did not say outright -- that they believed Mubarak was on his way out and that the administration was preparing for what comes next.
"We can't be seen as picking a winner. We can't be seen as telling a leader to go," said Rhodes, according to one of the expert participants. The Obama team has not told Mubarak either publicly or privately that he must step down, but has been constantly and consistently giving the embattled Egyptian leader direct and honest messages about what the U.S. expects, the White House staffers told the experts.
Multiple attendees said the White House staff expressed skepticism that newly minted Vice President Omar Soliman would emerge as the next leader of Egypt, but acknowledged that he would be influential during the transition process. "Transition" apparently is the new message word for the administration, allowing them to position themselves on the side of the protesters without throwing Mubarak completely under the bus.
The Carnegie Endowment's Michele Dunne, who attended the meeting, told The Cable that the administration officials first reviewed what the policy has been, traced the administration's activities as the crisis unfolded, and then repeated the official message that both sides should refrain from violence.
"The White House's position has improved on the issue but they're ducking the difficult question about whether they have to say anything publicly or privately about whether Mubarak needs to go," Dunne said.
She and others in the meeting argued for swifter and more forceful statements from the administration calling for Mubarak to step down, lest the U.S. be seen as having tried to prop up the regime in the eyes of the Egyptian people.
"What we were trying to tell them is that change is coming, the status quo is passing away, and the question is do we want to shape that change constructively or not," Dunne said. "For a long time, a lot of people have felt that question was just too hard."
Although the NSS staffers in the meeting held their cards close, another attendee said the impression was clear that the administration was now focusing on a post-Mubarak Egypt.
"There was no narrative of change or reform that can involve Mubarak," this attendee said. "They see Soliman as their guy for now, but there's also doubt about Soliman's ongoing legitimacy to be a caretaker for an orderly transition. There's also doubt about what an organized process would be."
The attendees reported that the White House staff did not indicate any specific entity or person they would back as the jockeying for power plays out. There's a realization that overt American support for any group could actually harm that group's standing. There's also a realization that the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to have an increased role going forward and that the administration had better start thinking about how to handle that eventuality.
One of those potential leaders, Mohamed ElBaradei, has been calling on the Obama administration to publicly denounce Mubarak. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey was in contact with a range of officials and groups both inside and outside the Egyptian government. The White House declined to say if they were reaching out to specific opposition leaders, such as ElBaradei.
"As a matter of course, we engage with both the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people -- including many political leaders and activists from a variety of backgrounds," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable. "We will continue to do so."
A top State Department official in Tunis pledged full American support for the Tunisian drive to hold free elections on Wednesday, but also sought to distance the U.S. position on Tunisia from other mass protests in the region, such as the ongoing unrest in Egypt.
"What happened in Tunisia strikes me as uniquely Tunisian. That the events that took place here over the past few weeks derive from particularly Tunisian grievances, from Tunisian circumstances by the Tunisian people," Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said at a press conference.
He called for free and fair elections in Tunisia and pledged both American and international support to set them up.
"The United States stands with the people of Tunisia. This is an exciting and unprecedented moment in Tunisia's history with great challenges but also great opportunities for the Tunisian people to chart their own course," he said.
Feltman allowed that there are some fundamental similarities with regard to human rights.
"The challenges that are faced here are in some cases shared. And we think governments everywhere should be finding ways to permit peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the media in order to give people a say in how they are governed and to give them a stake in the future," he said.
Feltman's remarks echo Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's latest statement, which also calls on the Egyptian government to stop harassing protesters, but doesn't call on the Egyptian government to let them participate in a real election process.
"It is important that the government listens to the concerns of those demonstrating and respects rights of freedom of assembly and expression," she said. "Openness, transparency and political freedom are important tenets of stability. We urge the government and demonstrators to seek a peaceful way forward."
The Obama administration's support for Tunisians' right to self determination was on display during last night's State of the Union speech by President Obama, a speech in which he didn't mention Egypt at all.
"We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people," said Obama.
The White House issued a statement from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs at about 11:30 PM, after the president's speech had concluded, expressing U.S. support of Egyptians right to peaceful assembly, but without any call for free and fair elections.
"The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals," the statement read.
During a Wednesday morning roundtable, State Department Policy Planning Director Anne Marie Slaughter explained the seeming disparity by noting that there was consistency in the sense that both stances include a respect for "universal values."
"That means we are strongly supportive of the Tunisians in the effort to achieve democracy, it also means we are not imposing our values on countries around the world," she said.
The New America Foundation's Steve Clemons said that the George W. Bush administration, despite that it outwardly advocated for democratic change in the Arab world, might have taken a similar stance as the Obama administration has on Egypt.
"The notion that we're somehow in the streets with every potential freedom movement would be a mistake in foreign policy," he said. "If this administration was out there calling for regime change in Egypt, I think that would be a huge mistake."
Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has a message for those in Congress who want to slash development and foreign-aid budgets: Cuts will undermine U.S. national security.
On the heels of a major speech on the coming reforms to America's premier development agency, Shah sat down for an exclusive interview with The Cable to explain his vision for making USAID more responsible and accountable, an effort he said will require increased short-term investment in order to realize long-term savings.
But if Congress follows through on a massive defunding of USAID as the 165-member Republican Study Group recommended yesterday, it would not only put USAID's reforms in jeopardy, but have real and drastic negative implications for American power and the ongoing missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Shah.
"That first and foremost puts our national security in real jeopardy because we are working hand and glove with our military to keep us safe," said Shah, referring to USAID missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and Central America, and responding directly to congressional calls for cuts in foreign aid and development.
The RSC plan calls for $1.39 billion in annual savings from USAID. The USAID operating budget for fiscal 2010 was approximately $1.65 billion. The RSC spending plan summary was not clear if all the cuts would come from operations or from USAID administered programs.
"That would have massive negative implications for our fundamental security," said Shah. "And as people start to engage in a discussion of what that would mean for protecting our border, for preventing terrorist safe havens and keeping our country safe from extremists' ideology … and what that would mean for literally taking children that we feed and keep alive through medicines or food and leaving them to starve. I think those are the types of things people will back away from."
The interests between the development community and U.S. national security objectives don't always align, and this tension is at the core of the debate on how to reinvigorate USAID. Short-term foreign-policy objectives sometimes don't match long-term development needs, and U.S. foreign-policy priorities are not made with development foremost in mind.
But Shah's ambitious drive to reform USAID seems to embrace the idea that development investments can be justified due to their linkage with national security. He is preparing to unveil next month USAID's first ever policy on combating violent extremism and executing counterinsurgency. He also plans to focus USAID's efforts on hot spots like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, while transitioning away from other countries that are faring well and downgrading the agency's presence in places like Paris, Rome, and Tokyo.
Shah pointed out that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and ISAF Commander Gen. David Petraeus have all come out in strong support of increasing USAID's capacity to do foreign aid.
"In the military they call us a high-value, low-density partner because we are of high value to the national security mission but there aren't enough of us and we don't have enough capability," he said. "This is actually a much, much, much more efficient investment than sending in our troops, not even counting the tremendous risk to American lives when we have to do that."
For those less concerned with matters of national security, Shah also framed his argument for development aid in terms of increased domestic economic and job opportunities: If we want to export more, we need to help develop new markets that are U.S.-friendly.
"If we are going to be competitive as a country and create jobs at home, we cannot ignore the billions of people who are currently very low income but will in fact form a major new middle-class market in the next two decades," he said.
One of the main criticisms of USAID both on Capitol Hill and elsewhere is that the agency has been reduced over the years to not much more than a contracting outfit, disbursing billions of dollars around the world to organizations that have mixed performance records. In Shah's view, if Congress wants USAID to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse, it has to increase the agency's operating budget and allow the agency to monitor contracts in-house.
"It was the Bush administration that helped launch the effort to reinvest in USAID's capabilities and hiring and people, and the reason they did that is they recognized you save a lot more money by being better managers of contracts," Shah said. "We have a choice. We have a critical need to make the smart investments in our own operations … which over time will save hundreds of millions of dollars, as opposed to trying to save a little bit now by cutting our capacity to do oversight and monitoring."
Shah wouldn't comment on the latest and greatest USAID contracting scandal, where the agency suspended contractor AED from receiving any new contracts amid allegations of widespread fraud. But he did say that his office would be personally reviewing large sole-source contracts from now on, requiring independent and public evaluations, and that more corrective actions are in the works.
"I suspect you'll see more instances of effective, proactive oversight that in fact saves American taxpayers significant resources," he said.
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