President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres discussed how the Israeli-Palestinian peace process fits into the wave of democratization sweeping through the Arab world during a working lunch and then a 40 minute one-on-one meeting on Tuesday..
"We had an extensive discussion about what's happened in the Middle East," Obama said at a press conference after the meetings. "I think he and I both share a belief that this is both a challenge and an opportunity; that with the winds of change blowing through the Arab world, it's more urgent than ever that we try to seize the opportunity to create a peaceful solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis."
At the working lunch, Obama was joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, NSC Chief of Staff Brooke Anderson, NSC Senior Director Dennis Ross, incoming U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell, and NSC Senior Director Puneet Talwar.
Both presidents expressed the opinion that bringing the Arab-Israeli conflict to a resolution would help the United States and Israel support democratic change in the Middle East.
"We see it as a clash between generations, a clash between those who want democracy and those who want to go backwards," an Israel official who was present at the lunch told The Cable. "One of the ways to make sure the right side wins is if there could be progress in the peace process."
The most immediate issue for Israel how to set good relations with the next government in Egypt. Obama said the two presidents discussed ways for both countries to support Egypt's economic development as a means of supporting the Egyptian youth. Peres believes restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would also help Israel navigate its changing relationship with Egypt.
"Peres' message is that Palestinians and Israel now have a common interest to get to negotiations, because both sides want Egypt to continue to support the peace process," the Israel official said.
But Obama, following the breakdown of the direct negotiations he and Clinton worked so hard to push forward in 2010, warned Peres that he would only try again if he first saw increased commitment from both parties.
"Obama said he's willing to help, he's willing to push forward, but... he wants to see that a serious effort is being made and then he will add his weight," the official explained.
Obama and Peres also addressed the issue of Iran at their meetings. Peres noted that dealing with Iran is also a moral issue, because the Islamic Republic heads the anti-democratic camp in the region. The two presidents also agreed on continuing cooperation on missile defense against the Iranian threat and the necessity of maintaining economic sanctions on Tehran. .
According to the Israeli official, Peres told Obama that Israel is increasingly concerned about the flow of Russian strategic weaponry into the region and said that Israel wants to purchase an additional 20 F-35 fighter jets.
U.S. officials at the lunch raised the touchy issue of continued Israeli settlement building, but Peres didn't give any ground.
"Look, our policy hasn't changed," the official said, referring to Peres's position. "We have our differences with the administration but this has been our policy all along. We don't agree on everything."
Peres also asked Obama to consider clemency for convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, and he reminded the U.S. president that he has an open invitation to visit Israel whenever he wants.
Obama acknowledged both points but gave "no sort of reply one way or the other," the official said.
The world's leading Internet giant and a leading foreign policy think tank are convening a major conference this summer in Ireland that will bring together former violent extremists to discuss how to prevent homegrown terrorism.
Google Ideas, the new "think/do tank" led by former State Department official Jared Cohen, is organizing a 3-day event in Dublin in late June in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations, where Cohen is also a fellow. The event will bring together about 50 former extremists who used to be members of inner city street gangs, white power groups, Muslim fundamentalist groups, and other violent youth organizations. Over 200 experts from academia, civil society groups, tech companies, victims' groups, and private corporations will also join.
Homeland Security chairman Peter King's (R-NY) controversial congressional hearings last week were criticized for their focus on Muslim extremism. The CFR/Google conference seeks to reframe the debate over homegrown extremism as a problem that cuts across political, geographic, and religious lines.
"We've seen anecdotal evidence of similarities across different types of violent organizations, from gangs to right wing extremists to religious extremists," Cohen told The Cable in an interview. "We know they target young people, we know they are comprised largely of young people, and we know they use similar tactics. But there's a lot of exploring left to be done."
This new project, Cohen's first major endeavor as head of Google Ideas, will focus on "formers" -- troubled youth who have not only left their violent organizations but also speak out against them publicly. The idea is to link them up with professionals, victims' advocates, and even technology firms to help them coordinate their efforts.
The conference will feature "formers" from urban African American gangs, rural white power gangs, neo Nazis gangs, Latin American gangs, Asian gangs, and former nationalist extremists from Ireland, Europe, and Asia, as well as Islamist extremists from the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia.
"We have a hypothesis that we are exploring," said Cohen. "When you remove the masks of religion or ideology or anything else, what are the root causes? If we accept that nobody is born wanting to be a terrorist, then what happens between the time when they're young and the time when they join these groups?"
This is the first major conference for Google Ideas, and their first major collaboration with CFR. Cohen said the project fits well into Google's efforts to look at the way technology and information can be used to push forward constructive solutions to global problems.
"Counter radicalization is a big challenge for American foreign policy. It's imperative for us to acknowledge the problem and then to ask the question, how do you move against it," said CFR Vice President James Lindsay in an interview.
CFR has been steadily ramping up its activity on this front. The think tank recently brought on Ed Husain, the founding director of the Quilliam Foundation, a British counter-extremism think tank, as a senior fellow in their Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative. It also started a cooperative program on examining violent extremism with Georgetown University.
So is the Google/CFR project meant to make the point that religion is not a driver of radicalization?
"What we're trying to do is create space for cross-context discussions that haven't taken place before," said Cohen. "Maybe religion doesn't feature at all into the conversations, maybe it features a fair amount. We don't know yet."
For those who can't make it to Dublin but want a taste of the discussion, CFR and Google Ideas are holding a panel discussion April 29 in New York on the topic in conjunction with the Tribeca Film Festival, where six of the "formers" will speak.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is only one of the many people in Washington who are scratching their heads today after the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was mostly a "secular" group.
"The term ‘Muslim Brotherhood' is an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam," Clapper told the first ever hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence under new chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI).
Clapper's public affairs chief Jamie Smith "clarified" the remarks, telling ABC that Clapper really meant to say that "in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood makes efforts to work through a political system that has been, under Mubarak's rule, one that is largely secular in its orientation - he is well aware that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a secular organization."
But the gaffe was enough to invoke the ire of many in Congress, who are warning about the risks of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power. Kirk, who was a Naval intelligence officer, issued a statement criticizing Clapper Thursday afternoon.
"I am concerned that the DNI's assessment does not agree with recent public statements by senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood nor does it agree with the organization's publicly stated goals," Kirk's statement read. "As the world watches these historic events unfolding in Egypt, the United States should support an orderly transition to democracy that prevents the radical Muslim Brotherhood from grabbing power."
The debate over the real identity and role of the Brotherhood is just starting in Congress, and was at the top of lawmakers' concerns at Wednesday's hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Now the White House is reportedly making matters worse by apparently re-examining its position on dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, but also stating that a new Egyptian government should include a whole host of important nonsecular actors," Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said at the hearing. "The Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with driving these protests, and they and other extremists must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt."
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."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) just became the most senior foreign-policy figure in Washington to outwardly call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down from power now.
"Regrettably the time has come 4 Pres. Mubarak 2 step down & relinquish power. It's in the best interest of Egypt, its people & its military," he tweeted Wednesday afternoon.
McCain, who met with President Obama at the White House Wednesday, went further than either the administration or Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who have called for Mubarak not to run again for president but have stopped short of calling for him to relinquish power at this time.
The message from McCain was not some coordinated communications strategy cooked up with the White House, according to our sources, but simply represented McCain's latest analysis of the ever worsening situation on the ground in Egypt and the handling of the crisis by Mubarak and his regime.
Only yesterday, McCain was supporting the administration's official line. On Tuesday, he praised Obama's call for Mubarak to begin an orderly transition to democracy and to not run for reelection.
"I'm not going to try to second-guess the president at this difficult time," McCain told reporters. "I think there should be a transition and an orderly one."
McCain's call for Mubarak to step aside immediately is also notable because McCain has been arguing strenuously in recent days that the Muslim Brotherhood, which stands to benefit from a free election, is a dangerous and violent organization.
"Have no doubt about the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood. They're a radical organization, they support Hamas, and they would be very bad for Egypt," McCain said Tuesday.
Last fall, McCain led a drive to pass a Senate resolution calling on Mubarak to advance political reform and calling on the Obama administration to press Mubarak on human rights. That resolution died before reaching a vote on the Senate floor.
"We've got to be on the right side of history," McCain told The Cable Tuesday. "If you're on the right side of history, everything will turn out OK."
Following Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's announcement he will not run for president again and the Egyptian protesters' apparent rejection of that concession, it's clear is that even if "envoy" Frank Wisner's mission to Cairo was a success, the Obama administration isn't out of the woods yet on this crisis.
Obama sent Wisner to deliver the message to Mubarak that he should announce he will not run for reelection in September and provide for the orderly transition to a more democratic government. Mubarak's concessions apparently didn't go quite as far as the administration wanted in detailing the terms of such a transition. But administration officials are saying Tuesday night they now realize that even if Mubarak had done everything they asked, that was not going to be enough to satisfy the protesters.
On Tuesday night, following Mubarak's remarks, Obama addressed the rapidly changing situation in Egypt. "We've borne witness to the beginning of a new chapter in the history of a great country, and a long-time partner of the United States," he said, adding that the transition "must begin now."
Nevertheless, the progress made so far has not been enough to end the standoff or repair the protesters' view of the United States, and the Obama administration now must figure out its role in what could become protracted negotiations between Mubarak and the opposition.
"Now there's a strategic game going on between the Obama administration and Mubarak," said the Council on Foreign Relations' Steven Cook, who was in Cairo when the protests broke out. The White House should have known anything short of Mubarak stepping down immediately would not end the crisis, he said.
"Either the administration has some other strategy or they didn't realize that there's the potential for Mubarak to take the opportunity of the next few months to manipulate the political process to favor whomever he wants to follow him," Cook said. "I can't believe they thought this would satisfy the crowds."
Of course, now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can point to Mubarak's Tuesday night speech in order to hold him to account if the president doesn't actually move to hold free and fair elections. But the Egyptian people, who were already angry about U.S. support for Mubarak, aren't likely to see that as a helpful stance by the Obama team.
"Everybody in Egypt knows we have enabled this regime. At this point we need to get out of the way," said Cook.
Perhaps the administration doesn't want to completely burn its relationship with Mubarak, just in case he actually prevails, but that ship might have already sailed. "The relationship is never going to be the same again, there's going to be hostility anyway, so they might as well double down [on the side of the protesters]," Cook said. "The jig is up."
According to a readout of today's national security meeting at the White House, the Obama administration is still calling for an "orderly transition" to greater democracy in Egypt - a position first outlined by Clinton on Jan. 30.
"With regard to Egypt, Secretary Clinton discussed our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, association, and speech; and supporting an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people," the White House stated.
Behind the scenes, there are increasing signs the administration is reaching out to opposition leaders. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted Tuesday that U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey spoke with Mohamed ElBaradei; a senior State Department official also said that she will be speaking with other opposition leaders.
But while Wisner, who is known for being close to Mubarak and his people, might be a perfect "envoy" to send to deal with Mubarak, he's not likely to be the American in the best position to reach out to the opposition groups. That would require a diplomat with close and personal relationships with various non-governmental entities in Egypt.
To be sure, administration officials both in Washington and Cairo have extensive ties with various opposition elements in Egypt and are in contact with them on a regular basis. But if the Obama administration wanted to quickly ramp up its engagement with the opposition, a new envoy could do the trick.
We're told that the administration is now considering a new, different envoy to send to Cairo to fulfill that very mission and the administration is focusing on another former U.S. ambassador to Egypt. The most likely candidates who fit that description are Daniel Kurtzer, an ambassador in Cairo under President Clinton with strong ties to the Obama team, Ned Walker, another Clinton-era ambassador and a former president of the Middle East Institute, and Frank Ricciardone, the ambassador before Scobey and current ambassador to Turkey.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, suggested that it might be better to keep the administration's preparations for what promises to be a radical shift in Egypt's political terrain on a lower level than another unofficial envoy, instead depending on the people who have been working with Egyptian civil society groups on the ground.
"Sending a new ‘envoy' to reach out to opposition groups would send a strong signal, but you need someone who really understands and has relationships with a wide range of figures there," he said.
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.
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."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington today for a trip to the Gulf, where she will meet with senior Arab leaders and civic groups. Middle East peace, Iraq, and Iran will be at the top of her agenda.
Clinton travels to New York tonight to pay a visit to Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, who has been in New York since November for surgery on his back. She'll also meet tonight with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in New York, before embarking on a six-day trip that will take her to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar.
"She is going to want to talk about Iraq," a senior State Department official said about the trip. "We obviously want to encourage [regional leaders in the Gulf] to be as supportive as possible to the new Iraqi government."
"On the peace process, I think it's time once again for the secretary to take stock on what is happening in the region," the official said. "She will want to talk a bit about where the Arab peace initiative is and she will want to get a better sense of how the region sees the situation on the ground both in terms of both the Palestinian Authority and also in terms of the talks... We are very eager to see progress made but it's an uphill battle."
Clinton will also sound out the Gulf rulers on their opinions toward Iran's recent actions, said the official. With the "P5+1" countries scheduled to hold another round of talks with Iran in Istanbul, it is an important moment to attempt to "unknot this problem that we find ourselves in with the Iranians and their nuclear ambitions," the official said. "She'll also want to take stock of where we are on the sanctions regime."
Clinton will hold bilateral meetings with senior leaders in all three countries. In the UAE, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince, and his brother Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister.
This will be Clinton's first visit to Dubai, where she will meet with ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. She will also go to Abu Dhabi and visit the "green city" of Masdar, the futuristic neighborhood being built to run completely carbon neutral and waste free.
In Oman, Clinton will help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who the State Department official described as "a long time friend of the United States and a valued partner who has made enormous changes on the ground in his country over the last 40 years. "
In Qatar, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir, and participate in the Forum for the Future, a meeting of government, civil society, and business leaders from around the region. There she will participate in a panel with a foreign minister, a civil society representative, and a business leader from the region.
The State Department is billing the trip as "an opportunity to showcase these other dimensions of U.S. engagement in the Middle East and the Gulf, particularly the emphasis we've placed on building partnerships beyond the government to government level, reaching out to civil society, reaching out to the private sector," said another senior State Department official. "That's really the key goal for everything that she's doing on the trip."
The U.S. government is working furiously to counter a plot to attack several European public targets, CIA chief Leon Panetta told the head of Pakistan's intelligence community Wednesday.
The plot, to attack multiple public targets in several European capitals, was slated to occur in late November, according to Panetta. After capturing one of the prospective attackers en route from Pakistan's FATA region, the U.S. government authorized the CIA to step up drone strikes inside Pakistan to unprecedented levels while working with various allied governments to kill or capture the two to three dozen militants reportedly preparing for the operation.
The strikes being planned focus on soft targets, such as tourist attractions and public meeting spaces. No targets were believed to be in the United States, although the targets could very well have American citizens present.
Panetta, traveling in Islamabad, met with Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) Wednesday to brief him on what American intelligence services have discovered about a series of Mumbai-style attacks planned by al Qaeda in cooperation with Pakistan's Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the military group responsible for the devastating attacks in India in November 2008.
The Cable received a read-out from a high-level source who was briefed directly on the Panetta-Pasha meeting. The CIA is asking Pakistan to allow expanded permissions to increase the intensity of drone strikes inside Pakistan -- which are already at record levels --and allow greater access for U.S. and associated forces operating inside Pakistan.
According to The Cable's source, Panetta told Pasha that the U.S. already has in custody one of the alleged attackers, a German citizen of Pakistani origin named Siddiqui. He was captured leaving Pakistan's FATA region and is now currently being held at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.
The attacks were planned for late November and allied intelligence agencies are employing all resources at their disposal to round up the rest of the perpetrators, with the understanding that the threat has not yet been neutralized.
"Unless you have killed or captured all 24 to 36 operatives, how can you be sure the plot is foiled?" the source said.
According to the source briefed on the Panetta-Pasha meeting, there were no targets inside the United States for the plot, but the high-value European targets that were reportedly on the list of sites to be attacked could very well have American citizens present.
European governments have already been taking precautionary measures. The Eiffel Tower was evacuated for the second time Tuesday and the U.K. government is holding its official threat warning level at "severe," the second highest level, which means that "a terrorist attack is highly likely."
Panetta told Pasha that the drone strikes will escalate further in the coming days and pressed him for information that might aid the search and increased access to Pakistani intelligence data on the groups involved.
Pasha, in turn, asked Panetta for any remaining intelligence the U.S. is holding on the groups and individuals it was targeting. Pasha wants the ISI to be in the loop on any related CIA operations. The tone of the meeting was friendly, but extremely tense, the source said.
The Pakistani government is cooperating fully with the CIA, but concerns linger that elements not completely under the government's control may still be holding out, protecting friends in and allegiances with groups such as the Haqqani Network.
The crisis couldn't come at a worse time for the Pakistani civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari has been under increasing attack by elements in the Pakistani military and the ISI, who have been pressing for his ouster and using elements within the media and judiciary to bolster their cause.
Pasha, as well as Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is said to be working with the civilian government on the imminent threat. But simultaneously, elements of the military and intelligence services are increasing their behind-the-scenes opposition to the Zardari government.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined to comment on the specifics of the threat Wednesday after meeting with EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton in Washington.
"Now with regard to the intelligence reports of threats, we are not going to comment on specific intelligence, as doing so threatens to undermine intelligence operations that are critical in protecting the United States and our allies," Clinton said.
"As we have repeatedly said, we know that al-Qaida and its network of terrorists wishes to attack both European and U.S. targets. We continue to work very closely with our European allies on the threat from international terrorism, including the role that al-Qaida continues to play."
A behind-the-scenes clash is playing out over President Obama's nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey, a key Middle East post at a time of tense relations between Washington and an increasingly independent-minded Ankara.
The would-be envoy, Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr., is a 32-year veteran of the Foreign Service who most recently served as the deputy ambassador in Kabul. He's served in Ankara in the past and speaks fluent Turkish. Ricciardone also played a role in organizing the Iraqi exile community before the 2003 U.S. drive to Baghdad.
But it's his tenure as George W. Bush's envoy to Egypt that has provoked the most criticism, particularly among neoconservatives who are hoping to persuade Republican senators to torpedo his nomination.
Ricciardone served as the U.S. ambassador in Cairo from 2005-2008. Activists and journalists dubbed those first few years the "Arab Spring," when street demonstrations, political ferment, and contested elections in Baghdad, Beirut, and other Arab capitals inspired hope that the Middle East's stagnant authoritarian regimes -- including that of Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with an iron fist since Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981 -- might finally fall.
The Bush administration exerted special efforts to promote democracy and human rights in Egypt, a longtime recipient of billions in military and economic aid, and a close U.S. partner on regional security matters. U.S. officials repeatedly raised human rights concerns with Mubarak's government, including the case of dissident political leader Ayman Nour. Then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a ringing 2005 address on democracy at the American University in Cairo, calling on Mubarak to embrace political reform.
Those efforts came crashing down months later, amid the widespread fraud and violence of Egypt's parliamentary elections. The opposition Muslim Brotherhood performed surprisingly well in the early rounds, prompting a harsh government crackdown that continues to this day. When Hamas shocked the world by winning the Palestinian elections the following January, the Bush administration appeared to lose its appetite for promoting Arab democracy altogether.
Former top National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams blames Ricciardone.
"Especially in 2005 and 2006, Secretary Rice and the Bush administration significantly increased American pressure for greater respect for human rights and progress toward democracy in Egypt. This of course meant pushing the Mubarak regime, arguing with it in private, and sometimes criticizing it in public. In all of this we in Washington found Ambassador Ricciardone to be without enthusiasm or energy," Abrams told The Cable.
Ricciardone's supporters counter that he is a distinguished diplomat with a history of serving in tough parts of the world. Some former officials maintain he forged close working relationships across the interagency, worked effectively with the military, and argue that his past experience in Turkey makes him ideal to advance that relationship and U.S. interests across the region as a whole.
"He's an outstanding and extremely dedicated Foreign Service officer who has served his country in some very delicate and dangerous postings," said Mitchell Reiss, who served at the State Department's director of policy planning under Bush,
But other former Bush administration officials are circulating stories they believe show Ricciardone in a negative light.
In one of them, before Rice's Cairo speech, she had a particularly nasty press conference with Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, where Gheit defended his regime's conduct by criticizing U.S. conduct in the war on terror. Sitting next to Rice following the press conference, Ricciardone blurted out "the problem is that fucking Patriot Act," one senior Bush administration official said, adding that Rice was incensed.
Egyptian officials have cited the Patriot Act in explaining the continued need for their own much-criticized Emergency Law, which contains loopholes that facilitate far-ranging restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.
"Putting aside the language, this seemed to those in the secretary's party to be yet another case of our ambassador's unwillingness even to see bad conduct by the government of Egypt, and to blame any case of it on Washington," the official said.
Ricciardone's critics claim that his strong personality and often blunt speaking style are the wrong mix for the current task at hand -- and that he has a tendency to get too close to his foreign interlocutors.
"Now is not the time for us to have an ambassador in Ankara who is more interested in serving the interests of the local autocrats and less interested in serving the interests of his own administration," said Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.
Aides from two GOP Senate offices said that while it's too early to say there is firm opposition on the Hill, their bosses have reservations about Ricciardone that could complicate his confirmation process. They plan to not only examine his time in Cairo, but his stints as deputy chief of mission in Turkey once before and his time serving as an official in Baghdad and in Kabul.
"Ricciardone has a lot to answer for on his record in Afghanistan, Egypt and on Iraq policy. What's more, his temperament and professionalism are in serious doubt," said one senior GOP aide. "It's unclear why the administration would send this FSO [Foreign Service officer] to such an important country given the tenuous state of Turkey's relationship with the West."
For all of Riccardione's detractors, he seems to have at least as many supporters. Experts, former officials, and diplomats from across the political spectrum have contacted The Cable in recent days to express their support for him and push back against what they see as the criticisms of a few. They say Ricciardone was made the scapegoat for a flawed Bush administration democracy push that never really had the financial commitment or follow-through it would have needed to be successful.
Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that there was never real consensus inside the Bush administration as to how to implement the pro-democracy push Rice highlighted in her Cairo speech, and that Ricciardone was put in the impossible situation of having to manage a complex relationship with a supposed ally while implementing a new policy that was aimed at his overthrow.
"He was quite effective as a U.S. ambassador at a time when the Bush administration and the Egyptian government were at loggerheads. There needed to be someone who could continue the conversation on a range of other things, not just democracy promotion," said Cook.
Ricciardone was tasked with doing two things that seem to be in direct contradiction: Pushing Egypt to help the United States on a host of regional issues, such as the war in Iraq and the fracturing of the Palestinian government, while also pushing Cairo to make reforms it was severely resisting.
"The Bush administration was saying ‘Carry our water while reforming yourself out of power,'" Cook explained, adding that Bush's Egypt democracy initiative never had the financial backing it would have needed to succeed, especially in light of the fact that meanwhile, the U.S. was giving Egypt more than $1 billion in military aid.
Actually, Ricciardone had a solution for that as well. In Cairo, he worked with Faiza Abu El Naga, who runs Egypt's Ministry of International Cooperation, to propose a huge new aid endowment for Egypt, under the thinking that by institutionalizing non-military aid to Egypt, democracy promotion could escape the annual tribulations of the often complicated congressional appropriations process. The fight over that endowment continues to this day.
The nomination fight over Ricciardone will likely become a debate over how best to approach Turkey during this delicate stage. For those who want to use the stick, he's destined to be the wrong choice. For those who think carrots are preferable, Ricciardone's extensive knowledge, fluent Turkish, and reputation for getting heavily involved in public diplomacy make him the perfect selection.
"Let's face it, there hasn't been much of an Obama effect in Turkey, so having an ambassador there who can get out among the people could be very useful," Cook said.
When push comes to shove in the Senate, the main question will be whether the Obama administration is willing to make that case and use some of its political capital to push the nomination through. They haven't always been eager to do so, as with the nomination of Robert Ford to be ambassador to Syria. Ford is well-liked by everybody, but the administration hasn't been active in pressing for his confirmation, potentially because it isn't eager to have a public debate about its policy of engaging Syria -- which has yet to show results.
Another Senate GOP aide who is critical of Ricciardone predicted that the administration won't want to make an issue of the Ricciardone nomination and anticipated that if they don't press it, his confirmation process could languish. "We don't need to put up much of a fight because things are moving so slowly anyway," the aide said.
JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images
With the Iraqi parliamentary elections set for Sunday, various Iraqi political groups are preparing for a reorganization of the national politics due to unprecedented openness and increased expected participation. This is especially true for the ruling parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government, which could see their national representation reduced proportionally due to expanded Sunni participation and the first fully fledged campaign by the Gorran (Change) party, which swept onto the scene after big gains in Kurdistan's 2009 regional polls.
The Cable sat down with Qubad Talabani, the KRG's representative in Washington and the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, to get his take on the elections, the implications for Kurdish interests, and the future of U.S. troops in Iraq's disputed northern provinces. "It's important to know that these elections are far more important for Iraq than those from 2005," he said. "The government that's formed after these elections will have to not only manage a transitioning United States from Iraq, but will also have to deal with the many outstanding issues in Iraq."
The Cable: How do you see the formation of the Iraqi government following the elections?
Qubad Talabani: There will be a widespread call for a swift government formation process. We understand and respect the need for a swift government formation process, but we mustn't sacrifice the quality of the government in consideration of the time it takes to form that government. The world will be watching and what they'll likely see is going to be another complicated, drawn out process. Stakes are very high, competition is fierce, and because of those factors, the government formation process may not look as smooth as many in the United States and around the world will like it to look. So we have to mitigate the expectations.
TC: How has the change of the election format from choosing only lists to voting for individual candidates and lists affected the campaign and Kurdish prospects?
QT: The effect is that people who will go to the parliament will be held more accountable because these people will have been directly voted for by the constituents. Hopefully the performance of these people will be better. It may not affect the numbers per se, but it will create a more accountable process.... You have to put people onto the slates that are popular, confident, and who you think can do the job to serve the people.
TC: What would be considered a success in terms Kurdish seats in the new parliament after the election?
QT: We have 55 seats right now in this current parliament but the national seat allocation has been increased from 275 to 325. Anything higher than 60 seats will be a good result for the Kurds, even if that's proportionally less. We have to be realistic; we do understand that there's a broader participation in these elections and that the three disputed territories is where the hottest competition will take place.
TC: How will the new participation of the Gorran Kurdish movement impact the result?
QT: You have three main Kurdish slates running in these elections: the Kurdistan alliance which is made up primarily of the PUK and the KDP, the Change movement party [Gorran], and the Islamic Union of Kurdistan's slate. There will certainly be competition for the Kurdish votes in the three northern provinces and the three disputed provinces. But I'm confident that once we've put the internal competition aside and people take their seats at the national level, when issues of relevance and importance to Kurdistan come to the table, the majority of the Kurdish blocks in the parliament will unify and vote for Kurdish interests.
TC: How will the overall stakeholders fare on Sunday?
QT: The outcome is really unknown, because of the number of slates participating, because of how close the race is nationally and regionally. Right now it would be premature to make any predictions.
TC: How do you view the news that Gen. Raymond Odierno has put in a request for American combat troops to remain in northern Iraq longer than planned and perhaps after the 2011 withdrawal date enshrined in the Status of Forces Agreement?
QT: The general has a good sense of what's required on the ground. There is a clear need right now for continued U.S. presence, particularly in the disputed territories.... We're open to a continued U.S. military presence as long as they're required. If U.S. forces are required beyond the time than what the SOFA states, that must come about through a renegotiation of an extension of the guidelines set by the current SOFA. The situation on the ground will determine whether an extension is needed. We as Kurds are not opposed to an extension but that will have to be decided at the federal level.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.