For the last six months, 40 senior representatives of various Syrian opposition groups have been meeting quietly in Germany under the tutelage of the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) to plan for how to set up a post-Assad Syrian government.
The project, which has not directly involved U.S. government officials but was partially funded by the State Department, is gaining increased relevance this month as the violence in Syria spirals out of control and hopes for a peaceful transition of power fade away. The leader of the project, USIP's Steven Heydemann, an academic expert on Syria, has briefed administration officials on the plan, as well as foreign officials, including on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul last month.
The project is called "The day after: Supporting a democratic transition in Syria." Heydemann spoke about the project in depth for the first time in an interview with The Cable. He described USIP's efforts as "working in a support role with a large group of opposition groups to define a transition process for a post-Assad Syria."
The opposition leaders involved in the USIP project have been meeting since January and providing updates on their work to the Arab League, the Friends of Syria group, the team of U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, and the opposition Syrian National Council.
The focus of the group's effort is to develop concrete plans for the immediate aftermath of a regime collapse, to mitigate the risks of bureaucratic, security, and economic chaos. The project has also identified a few things can be done in advance to prepare for a post-Assad Syria.
"We organized this project along systematic lines, including security-sector reform," Heydemann said. "We have provided technical support for Syrian opposition participants in our project, and the Syrians have identified priorities for things that need to be implemented now."
He emphasized that USIP's involvement is primarily in a facilitation and coordination role. "The Syrians are very much in the lead on this," he said.
USIP intends to release a report on the project in the coming weeks that will serve as a transition strategy document to be used by the next government. The next phase is to stand up a transition support network "to begin to implement these recommendations about stuff that needs to happen now," Heydemann said.
In addition to security-sector reform, the group has come up with plans to reform the justice sector and a framework for the role of the armed opposition in a post-Assad Syria. The idea is to preserve those parts of the Syrian state that can be carried over while preparing to reform the parts that can't. For example, large parts of the Syrian legal system could be preserved.
The group has come up with a few innovative proposals to make the post-Assad transition less chaotic. One example Heydemann cited was the idea of mobile judicial review squads, which could be deployed to do rapid review and release of detainees held by the regime after it falls.
The project has also tried to identify regime personnel who might be able to play an effective role in the immediate phase after Assad falls.
"There's a very clear understanding of the Syrians in this project that a transition is not sweeping away of the entire political and judicial framework of Syria," Heydemann said. "We have learned an enormous amount about the participants so that we can actually begin a very crude vetting process."
The USIP-led project has been careful to avoid working to push the Assad regime from power.
"We have very purposely stayed away from contributing to the direct overthrow of the Assad regime," Heydemann said. "Our project is called ‘the day after.' There are other groups working on the day before."
The project has been funded by the State Department, but also has received funding from the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as Dutch and Norwegian NGOs. USIP partnered with the German Institute of International and Security Affairs, which is why all of the meetings have been held in Berlin.
The absence of Obama administration officials at these meetings, even as observers, was deliberate.
"This is a situation where too visible a U.S. role would have been deeply counterproductive. It would have given the Assad regime and elements of the opposition an excuse to delegitimize the process," Heydemann said.
He also said that none of the groups that fall beyond the mainstream of the opposition have any connection to the project, although the participants assume that Islamist politics will be a significant part of any future Syrian political order.
The idea is not to predict if, how, or when the Assad regime might fall, but rather to do as much as possible, as quietly as possible, to get ready for any contingency.
"Regime collapse offers one set of challenges; a negotiated transition offers another. Even if we are not certain a transition will occur, it would be profoundly irresponsible not to prepare for a transition," Heydemann said. "We are providing the opposition with an opportunity for the opposition itself to demonstrate its ability to undertake this work, which is actually quite significant."
A staffer from the U.S. embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, made a cameo appearance in a rap video in his bathrobe drinking a beer.
The video, entitled "Mingechevir", was produced by the group Caspian Dreamers, a pair of former Peace Corps volunteers named Tim McNaught and Brad Kessler who have become a viral web sensation in Azerbaijan. The video sings the praises of the beach resort town and is set to the tune of Will Smith's "Miami."
Chris Jones, a cultural affairs officer at the Baku embassy, shows up at time marker 2:36, looking quite relaxed.
Caspian Dreamer's most popular video, "Baku State of Mind," has over 300,000 hits on YouTube and the group even competed in the Eurovision 2012 live performance competition. You can follow them on Facebook and YouTube here and here.
Syrian refugees are pouring into neighboring countries at an alarming and increasing rate, outpacing the international community's ability to assist them, according to State Department and USAID officials.
"The violence is increasing ... and this increase in violence is, of course, leading to more people, and a larger number of people, that are inside Syria and that are along Syria's borders needing more humanitarian assistance," said Maria Otero, the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy, and human rights.
Otero just returned from Turkey and Jordan, where she met with government officials, nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, human rights activists, and youth groups. She traveled there with Kelly Clements, the deputy assistant secretary of State for the bureau of population, refugees, and migration;
Clements said that as of Thursday, between 117,000 and 125,000 refugees had fled Syria to seek refuge in neighboring countries and thousands more were pouring over the borders each day. 8,500 Syrians crossed the border into Lebanon in the last 24 hours, she said.
As of Thursday, there were about 42,600 refugees in the camps along the Turkish border, she said. In Jordan, there are 37,000 refugees, of which about 35,000 have been registered with UNHCR. In Lebanon, there are 32,500; in Iraq about 8,000.
"There are obviously many more Syrians that have crossed that border but have not availed themselves of the need for international assistance," said Clements, adding that in Lebanon, "those numbers are rising very, very rapidly."
There are also 1.5 million Syrians inside Syria need of urgent assistance, including 300,000 to 500,000 internally displaced persons, but aid workers are struggling to reach them.
"Inside Syria, lack of access due to violence by all parties remains the number one limiting factor for humanitarian assistance. International humanitarian agencies simply are unable to reach those most in need," Clements said.
Aid workers are also being harassed and captured, even killed.
"We know it's been widespread, and we know from organizations that we're working with that medical clinics, health professionals have been targeted. We also know people simply trying to get aid in to help people have been targeted, said Mark Bartolini, director of the office of U.S. foreign disaster assistance.
At the Syria Humanitarian Forum last week in Geneva, the U.S. announced another $6 million in assistance to international organizations dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, bringing the total U.S. commitment in 2012 to $64 million, Clements said.
Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman is in New York for the Arms Trade Treaty Conference at the U.N. Observers say the talks are "a week behind schedule" as the July 27 deadline approaches. The National Rifle Association's opposition to the treaty on the grounds that it could violate citizens' Second Amendment rights promises to hinder President Barack Obama's goal of signing the treaty on deadline.
The Obama campaign Thursday called on Mitt Romney to clarify his policy on Afghanistan and highlighted a Romney's advisor's comments downplaying the importance of the issue.
"'Real Americans' care that Romney hasn't outlined a plan for Afghanistan," was the title of an e-mail sent out by the Obama campaign Thursday afternoon on behalf of Rob Diamond, the campaign's director for veterans and military families. Diamond was responding to comments Thursday morning made by Romney Senior Communications Adviser Tara Wall on MSNBC that "real Americans" don't care about Romney's Afghanistan policy.
Wall was responding to questions about an exclusive July 16 report on The Cable, in which we documented that senior senators on both sides of the aisle couldn't articulate Romney's Afghanistan policy, which currently contains sparse specifics on what Romney would do in Afghanistan if elected president.
"You would have to tell me what exactly you mean by ‘his policy.' That's a long discussion that I don't want to get into," Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl told The Cable.
When asked about those comments by MSNBC's Luke Russert, Wall demurred and called the issue a distraction.
"I'm not going to get into the details of that," she said. "Unfortunately it's disappointing that the attacks, these recent attacks on all these issues outside of what the issues are relative to Mitt Romney are diverting away from what real Americans want to talk about. And real Americans want to talk about getting back to work."
Diamond said that real Americans care about the mission in Afghanistan and he criticized Romney for supporting the Paul Ryan budget, which would reduce spending for veterans affairs by $11 billion per year compared to the administration's plan. Overall, the Obama campaign called on Romney to specify exactly what his plan in Afghanistan would be.
"Americans deserve to know what Mitt Romney would do as Commander-in-Chief, and rather than outlining a plan to end the war, he has thus far simply criticized the President for setting a timetable to bring our troops home," said Daimon. "If Governor Romney and his advisors don't have an answer because they don't have a plan, they should let us know that, too."
On Romney's website, the campaign criticizes President Barack Obama for announcing a "timetable" for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and accuses the administration of placing politics over the advice of military commanders by withdrawing 30,000 surge troops by September.
"Gov. Romney supports the 2014 timetable as a realistic timetable and a residual force post-2014. But he would not have announced that timetable publicly, as President Obama did, as doing so encourages the Taliban to wait us out and our allies to hedge their bets," a Romney campaign spokesperson told The Cable.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet with World Bank president Dr. Jim Yong Kim in Washington.
The Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved today a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status as well as a bill to punish Russian human rights violators, but time is running out to pass the legislation through the full House and Senate.
Committee Chairman Max Baucus (R-MT) called on Congress to quickly pass the bills before lawmakers leave town at the end of this month for the long August recess. Russia's accession to the WTO is imminent, and unless the United States grants Russia PNTR status, U.S. businesses won't be able to take advantage, he argued.
"There is no time to waste; America risks being left behind," Baucus said. "If we miss that deadline [of Russia's WTO accession], American farmers, ranchers, workers and businesses will lose out to the other 154 members of the WTO that already have PNTR with Russia. American workers will lose the jobs created to China, Canada and Europe when Russia, the world's seventh largest economy, joins the WTO and opens its market to the world."
Baucus also trumpeted the fact that the PNTR bill is now officially joined with the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, which passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously in June. The bill imposes restrictions on the financial activities and travel of foreign officials found to have been connected to various human rights violations in any country. The House version of the bill, approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, targets only Russian human rights violators.
"By enacting PNTR together with the Magnitsky bill, we are replacing Jackson-Vanik with legislation that addresses the corruption and accountability issues that Russia confronts today. The chairman's revised markup includes the version of the Magnitsky bill that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved last month under [Senate Foreign Relations Committee] Chairman [John] Kerry's leadership," Baucus said.
Baucus and Kerry co-authored an op-ed in Politico today urging Congress to move quickly to pass the PNTR-Magnitsky package.
The Russian government is vehemently opposed to the Magnitsky bill and has threatened broad retaliation. A group of Russian senators came to Washington last week to accuse Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison allegedly by torture, of being a tax cheat.
The next step is for the package to be passed in the House, because PNTR is a revenue-related bill and all revenue bills have to originate in the House. Several congressional staffers told The Cable that Ways and Means committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) is now the biggest obstacle to moving forward quickly because he wants to separate the PNTR bill from the Magnistky bill.
"This has to be done by August recess," one senior senate staffer told The Cable. "It's all coming down to Camp. Camp is taking this line of being a trade purist and wanting a clean bill. The Senate is ready to do this -- the question is whether the House get its ducks in a row."
Camp said in a statement Wednesday that he welcomed "the news that the Finance Committee was able to pass bipartisan Russia PNTR legislation today and will carefully study the bill once legislative text is available."
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has also said she wants to separate the PNTR bill from the Magnitsky bill, but for a different reason. She supports the Magnitsky bill doesn't support PNTR status for Russia.
President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday morning, but not about the WTO or human rights, according to a White House statement.
"President Obama called Russian President Putin today to discuss the developing situation in Syria," the statement said. "The two presidents noted the growing violence in Syria and agreed on the need to support a political transition as soon as possible that achieves our shared goal of ending the violence and avoiding a further deterioration of the situation."
Huma Abedin, top staffer to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and wife of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, has a new and unlikely champion -- Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
Abedin, who is of Pakistani origin, has been tied to the outlandish conspiracy theory that the State Department has conspired with the Muslim Brotherhood to take over Egypt, a notion that contributed to protests in Alexandria last weekend during which Egyptians pelted Clinton's motorcade with tomatoes and shoes while chanting "Monica, Monica," an apparent reference to Monica Lewinsky.
Several reports said the protesters got the idea of a State Department conspiracy with the Muslim Brotherhood from conservative blog posts and conservative lawmakers like Michele Bachmann, who wrote a letter last week to the inspector generals of five U.S. agencies asking them to investigate the alleged infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S. government.
"It appears that there has been deep penetration in the halls of our United States government by the Muslim Brotherhood," Bachmann said in the letter, which mentioned Abedin by name and accuses her of having three family members connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The far-right Center for Security Policy (CSP), led by Frank Gaffney, has also been accusing Abedin of having a nefarious connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. Gaffney's assertion is that Saleha Abedin, Huma's mother, is a leader of the Muslim Sisterhood.
In fact, Saleha Abedin is a leading voice on women's rights in the Muslim world and is a member of dozens of organizations. Her main job is as the director of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs at the Global Peace Initiative of Women, an organization that promotes dialogue and cooperation among women of various relgions.
McCain took to the Senate floor today to defend Huma Abedin and criticize his conservative colleagues. "I know Huma to be an intelligent, upstanding, hard-working, and loyal servant of our country and our government, who has devoted countless days of her life to advancing the ideals of the nation she loves and looking after its most precious interests," he said.
McCain referenced the Bachmann letter and the CSP report by name and said that there is no evidence that Abedin or any of her family members have ever done anything to counter American interests or ideals.
"To say that the accusations made in both documents are not substantiated by the evidence they offer is to be overly polite and diplomatic about it. It is far better, and more accurate, to talk straight: These allegations about Huma, and the report from which they are drawn, are nothing less than an unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable woman, a dedicated American, and a loyal public servant," McCain said. "These attacks on Huma have no logic, no basis, and no merit. And they need to stop now."
McCain, who was the victim of racial smears referencing his adopted daughter during the 2000 presidential campaign, said he understood what it was like to be attacked with lies laced with bigotry. He also said the issue was larger than just one person or one accusation.
"Our reputations, our character, are the only things we leave behind when we depart this Earth, and unjust attacks that malign the good name of a decent and honorable person is not only wrong; it is contrary to everything we hold dear as Americans," McCain said. "I have every confidence in Huma's loyalty to our country, and everyone else should as well."
The State Department is growing increasing frustrated with the MEK and its American lobbyists, and now with two leading lawmakers who are injecting themselves into the cause of the Iranian dissident group.
Tensions between Foggy Bottom and supporters of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime, have been building for months. The plan to relocate 3,200 members of the group from its compound in Iraq to a former U.S. military base appear stalled as the group lobbies to be taken off the list of terrorist organizations.
A federal court has ordered the State Department to make a decision on delisting the MEK by October, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated that the group's willingness to complete the move to the former base, Camp Liberty, will be a key factor in the department's decision. State Department officials, however, now believe the MEK is stalling.
"It is past time for the MEK to recognize that Ashraf is not going to remain an MEK base in Iraq," Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, told reporters on a conference call earlier this month. "The Iraqi government is committed to closing it, and any plan to wait out the government in the hope that something will change is irresponsible and dangerous."
Administration officials believe the MEK is getting bad advice and unhelpful support from its team of American advocates, some of whom are paid handsomely to advise the MEK and lobby the administration on its behalf (though all insist they are promoting the MEK's cause out of sincere conviction). The Treasury Department has opened an investigation into the funds paid to these activists, which often come from Iranian-American groups in the United States and are paid through a speakers' bureau.
An administration official told The Cable that the efforts on behalf of the MEK of Americans like Rudy Giuliani, Tom Ridge, Ed Rendell, James Jones, Mitchell Reiss, and now Newt Gingrich represent "sheer irresponsibility and greed which puts people's lives at risk,"
The Brunswick Group, the firm representing the advocates, declined to comment.
The MEK seems to believe it can keep control of Camp Ashraf, its longtime compound near the Iran-Iraq border, and Clinton will still be under pressure to delist the group, this official said.
"What bothers all of us working for a peaceful solution is that the MEK seems to believe all they have to do is hold firm and do whatever they want. They are being encouraged in this view by some of their American supporters," the official said. "If you are [MEK leader Maryam] Rajavi and are surrounded by all these people, you may think they can actually deliver and that is just terrible."
This week, the MEK got the support of two new powerful Americans, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA). The pair are circulating a letter this week to Clinton asking her to improve the conditions in Camp Liberty for the MEK.
"We respectfully request that the Department of State seek the Iraqi government's agreement to and implementation of a number of humanitarian measures. Until these measures are implemented, further voluntary relocation of Camp Ashraf residents would only exacerbate the current dreadful living conditions in Camp Liberty," the lawmakers wrote in the draft letter, obtained by The Cable.
Specifically, the lawmakers are requesting that the MEK residents in Camp Liberty be connected to the Iraqi main water system, be given more power generators, and be given new cars and trucks and other supplies. The administration official said that some of the requests are valid but the characterization of the conditions in Camp Liberty as "dreadful" is unfair.
"Really, are new cars a basic human right?" the official said.
Ambassador Dan Fried, the State Department official in charge of aiding the relocation of the MEK from Camp Ashraf, held a conference call with congressional staffers Tuesday, having just returned from Iraq. One staffer on the call said Fried was "furious" over congressional attempts to interfere in the transfer of MEK members to Camp Liberty. The Iraqi government has set a July 20 deadline for closing Camp Ashraf but the MEK are refusing to go, Fried told the staffers.
Fried said the Ros-Lehtinen letter was deeply unhelpful in that it further hardened the MEK's attitude against compromise, according to one witness sympathetic to his argument.
"From my perspective, these congressional attempts to placate the MEK's refusal to leave Ashraf is nothing short of irresponsible," this staffer said. "It's pandering of the worst sort and completely undermines U.S. policy. It's clear that Ros-Lehtinen and Sherman aren't actually interested in resolving the standoff, but posturing for political purposes by carrying the MEK's water."
Four members of Russia's upper chamber were in Washington last week to ask Congress not to pass human rights legislation targeting Russia and to accuse the late Sergei Magnitsky, for which the legislation was named, of stealing millions through tax fraud.
Russian Federation Council members Valery Snyakin, Vitaly Malkin, Alexey Shernyshev, and Alexander Savenkov were in Washington July 7 through July 13 and met with administration and congressional officials, including Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, NSC Senior Director for Russia Alice Wells, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Bob Corker (R-TN), and Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), among others.
On July 11, the visiting Russian lawmakers held a press conference at the Russian embassy to unveil their parliamentary investigation report on the case of Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died after allegedly being tortured in prison by Russian officials. Their message was that Magnitsky was guilty of tax fraud in Russia and that he died due to medical neglect, not torture.
Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, a bill that would create a list of human rights violators all over the world and impose banking and visa restrictions on them. The bill was initially designed to punish Magnitsky's captors. The House version still only targets Russian officials.
Before his meeting with the Russian senators, McCain told The Cable he would press the Russian lawmakers on why they are so focused on discrediting Magnitsky, who is facing criminal prosecution for tax fraud even though he has been dead for more than two years.
"I'll ask them why they are putting a dead man on trial. That's not a system of justice that I'm familiar with," McCain said.
In their press conference, the Russian senators spent at least 30 minutes detailing how they believe that Magnitsky worked with William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital, to defraud the Russian government of $230 million in tax revenue. The senators also released extensive autopsy and investigative reports to back up their contention that Magnitsky's death was the fault of his doctors and not Russian government or police officials.
According to that report, the doctors treating Magnitsky in prison made diagnostic errors and didn't prescribe him the right medicines. The report also claims that Magnitsky fought his captors and therefore force had to be used to get him to obey prison orders.
"The injuries on Magnitsky's body were most likely caused by multiple injuring impacts of a blunt object that might be possibly be a rubber baton," the report stated.
Browder told The Cable that the report was part of a new Russian strategy to seem active on the investigation of Magnitsky's death while limiting blame to the medical staff only, rather than the government officials above them.
"From what we have seen in the last few days, the Russians are trying to change their spin from outright threats to being more ‘reasonable,'" Browder said. "They are saying things like ‘please don't rush our investigation' and ‘prosecutions in the Magnitsky case are beginning, we are going after the doctor."
Browder has consistently denied he and Magnitsky are guilty of tax fraud.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has promised to join the Magnitsky bill to another bill that would grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status and repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that was meant to punish the Soviet Union for preventing Jewish emigration. His committee will mark up the PNTR bill July 18.
The Obama administration opposes the Magnitsky act, although it acknowledges that with it, Congress is unlikely to grant Russia PNTR status, which is needed for U.S. businesses to take full advantage of Russia's imminent accession to the WTO. The administration has warned that Russia will retaliate and disrupt various aspects of U.S.-Russian cooperation around the world.
Behind the scenes, GOP senators and congressional aides say, the administration is trying to water down the Magnitsky bill, for example by working to get the list of violators classified, and by trying to detach the Magnitsky bill from the PNTR legislation.
Classifying the list of violators would defeat the purpose of shaming them, McCain believes. As for the bill as a whole, "Hillary Clinton is trying to separate it completely. We're not going to let that happen," McCain told The Cable.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), told The Cable that there's no way the GOP caucus will back off its demand to pass the Magnitsky bill as part of any move to grant Russian PNTR status.
"I think we should stand with the Russia people and it's pretty clear that we would be helping the Russia people if we, to the extent that our pressure is meaningful at all with the Russian government, it causes them to rethink their policy of repression against the media and against lawyers like Magnitsky who are just trying to help people and do right," Kyl said. "It has to be part of the trade legislation."
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the main sponsor of the Magnitsky bill, did not meet with the Russian delegation. He said he was not even aware they were in town.
But Cardin told The Cable that he rejects the Russian senators' claims that there should be no human rights sanctions on those Russian officials who were connected to the Magnitsky case.
"I think Russia should take care of these human rights violators and hold them accountable," Cardin said. "They said they would do it. It's been over two years. They should take care of their own business."
At the press conference, the Russian senators claimed they had convinced those U.S. senators they met to alter their stance and consider the possibility of separating the Mangitsky bill from the PNTR legislation. A McCain spokesman told The Cable that's just not the case.
"He gave them a fair hearing and will consider what they had to say, but it will be a cold day in Gila Bend, Arizona, before he changes his position on this," the McCain spokesman said.
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
The State Department has gaps in its embassy staffs all over the world, despite several years of hiring increases, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
State "faces persistent experience gaps in overseas Foreign Service positions, particularly at the midlevels, and these gaps have not diminished since 2008," the GAO found in a report to be released Monday, obtained in advance by The Cable.
The State Department increased its hiring of foreign service officers (FSOs) by 17 percent in fiscal 2009 and 2010, but those new FSOs as yet don't have the experience to fill the midlevel openings in diplomatic posts throughout the world. Currently, about 28 percent of midlevel overseas positions are either vacant or filled by under-qualified officers, the GAO found. That percentage is the same as it was in 2008.
The State Department says the staffing shortages are due to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's plan to increase the overall size of the foreign service ranks by 25 percent, an effort called Diplomacy 3.0, but the GAO says even that plan is not set to meet targets due to the budget realities.
The GAO wants State to update its five-year plan to come up with a way to fill the midlevel FSO staffing shortfalls and State said it agreed with that recommendation.
"State acknowledges the need to close midlevel Foreign Service gaps, but it has not developed a strategy to help ensure that the department is taking full advantage of available human capital flexibilities and evaluating the success of its efforts to address these gaps," the report stated.
The largest staffing gaps are in hardship posts and for consular and office management specialist positions, the GAO found.
The report was requested by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management.
"The State Department continues to struggle with staffing, experience, and foreign language gaps, which undermine our diplomatic readiness. State must continue to develop effective workforce strategies and address staffing gaps to effectively respond to quickly evolving diplomatic challenges," Akaka said in a statement. "I commend State for their ongoing efforts to address these staffing shortages. I urge the Department to implement GAO's recommendation."
House Rules Committee chairman David Dreier (R-CA) announced last week during a visit to Tunis that he intends to head an initiative to propose a free trade agreement between the United States and Tunisia, which experienced a popular uprising in 2010 and held democratic elections in October.
"One of the most effective ways the United States can offer support to the Tunisian people as they work to solidify democratic gains is by expanding trade and commercial ties," Dreier, who is also the founding chairman of the House Democracy Partnership, said in an emailed statement yesterday. "Spurring economic growth through increased trade would ... help to create the resources necessary for sustainable democratic development and prosperity in Tunisia."
According to congressional sources, Dreier first discussed the topic with Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali at the Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum in March, just months after Dreier introduced a bipartisan resolution calling for a free trade agreement with Egypt and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative relaunched Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks with Tunisia. Even though Dreier's proposal has yet to gain a substantial congressional base, he is partnering with House Committee on Foreign Affairs senior member Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN).
As Brookings Institute Saban Center on the Middle East director Tamara Wittes noted, there's a growing feeling of congressional support for Tunisia.
"I think there's a tremendous amount of support on the Hill for Tunisia," she told The Cable. "I think members of Congress understand how important it is to have a successful model in North Africa for the other countries struggling with democratic reform."
U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president of Middle East and North Africa affairs Lionel Johnson agrees that Tunisia has a lot of potential.
"The Tunisian government is the one in the region that shows the most promise," he told The Cable. "We'd like to see talks begin in early 2013."
Washington has already pledged to help Tunisia with short-term economic problems like debt and unemployment. In March, it was announced that the United States would transfer $100 million to Tunisia, which faces a $25 billion debt, and in June the parliament in Tunis voted in favor of a bill allowing for a $400-450 million sovereign bond issue "with up to 100 percent of the principal and interest guaranteed by the U.S. government," enabling Tunisia to "borrow at almost risk-free rates." The State Department's Middle East Transitions office is pursuing a series of "smaller but important steps."
"There are investment regulations, border controls, and other regulatory changes that could help facilitate trade between the U.S. and Tunisia," Middle East Transitions program director William Taylor told The Cable. "What we're hoping is that by taking some of these steps earlier on, they might get some of these trade benefits sooner than if they were wrapped into one large negotiation for a free trade agreement."
Ultimately, though, a free trade agreement stands to make a significant economic impact on Tunisia, which counted the United States among its top five trading partners in 2010.
"There's a lot that the U.S. is already doing with economic and technical assistance to support the growth of the private sector in Tunisia, so an FTA would complement that because it would be mutually beneficial," Wittes explained. "Over the long term, we know that Tunisian economic health is going to come through a robust private sector that will help to cement a democratic transition. This is not an FTA that's going to have a massive impact on the U.S. economy. It will, however, have an important impact on the Tunisian side."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) says he thinks Tunisia will become a strong economic partner for the U.S.
"Most successful middle-income countries want deeper bilateral trade relationships," he said at an event on Wednesday. "Countries that undergo successful transitions often ... become our best allies and trading partners."
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
President Barack Obama announced Wednesday he is lifting the investment ban on Burma, allowing U.S. companies to enter Burma's lucrative energy sector, above the objections of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
"Today, the United States is easing restrictions to allow U.S. companies to responsibly do business in Burma," Obama said in a Wednesday statement. "President Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma continue to make significant progress along the path to democracy, and the government has continued to make important economic and political reforms. Easing sanctions is a strong signal of our support for reform, and will provide immediate incentives for reformers and significant benefits to the people of Burma."
Obama said that that entities owned by the Burmese armed forces and the ministry of defense will not be covered by the general licenses to invest in Burma that the administration is issuing to U.S. companies today.
"Burma's political and economic reforms remain unfinished. The United States Government remains deeply concerned about the lack of transparency in Burma's investment environment and the military's role in the economy," he said.
He also noted that U.S. companies will be required to report on their new activities in Burma and adhere to international corporate governance standards. The president signed a new executive order expanding sanctions against human rights violators in Burma at the same time it repealed the investment ban, which has been in place since the Clinton administration.
Wednesday's announcement comes after an intense internal debate over whether to include Burma's energy and natural resource sectors in the new general licenses. Industry groups such as the U.S.-ASEAN business council, working with oil companies like Chevron, lobbied hard and successfully for a full repeal of the investment ban. They were supported by some lawmakers, such as Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Jim Webb (D-VA).
Human rights groups and other lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), cautioned the administration to go slow and issue only a partial repeal of the investment ban. They especially wanted the administration to retain bans on U.S. companies working with the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) the state controlled entity through which all energy sector business flows, which they say is still heavily influenced by the Burmese military.
"We share Aung San Suu Kyi's concerns that MOGE's operations lack transparency, that it remains overly influenced by the Burmese military, and that the large amounts of foreign investment flowing into MOGE are not sufficiently accountable to the Burmese people or its parliament," the senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a July 3 letter.
"We are not opposed in principle to U.S. investment in Burma's oil and gas industry. However, it is critical that foreign investment in Burma be carefully structured to benefit the Burmese people and strengthen the political and economic reforms that are at last underway there."
Suu Kyi, who was elected to Burma's parliament in April after more than two decades of house arrest, last month specifically asked foreign governments not to allow their companies to partner with MOGE at this time.
"The Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) ... with which all foreign participation in the energy sector takes place through joint venture arrangements, lacks both transparency and accountability at present," she said June 14 in a speech in Geneva. "The [Myanmar] government needs to apply internationally recognized standards such as the IMF code of good practices on fiscal transparency. Other countries could help by not allowing their own companies to partner [with] MOGE unless it was signed up to such codes."
The Obama administration has repeatedly said that it would follow Suu Kyi's lead while cautiously opening up to closer ties with the Burmese regime. The new U.S. ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell arrived there today.
But in this case, supporters of a more cautious path of easing Burma sanctions inside the administration lost out. They included the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), let by Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, and those in the National Security Staff focused on human rights, such as Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power, according to sources familiar with the internal discussions.
Following a Deputies Committee meeting last week, the side that advocated for a broader repeal of the investment ban won out. That side included the State Department's East Asian and Pacific affairs bureau (EAP), led by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, the economics office at State led by Undersecretary Robert Hormats, and the Treasury and Commerce departments. Hormats is set to travel to Burma next week with a contingent of business leaders in tow.
Human rights experts saw today's move as a change from the administraion's original promise to pursue targeted easing of the investment ban. Administration officials promised a sector-by-sector approach whereby the administration would have begun by focusing on sectors of the economy most likely to help the Burmese people, rather than the country's military.
The idea was to encourage development of tourism, banking, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors, while maintaining investment bans on industries such as natural gas, mineral extracting, and timber, which are mostly controlled by the military.
"The pro-industry lobby convinced the administration to back off from the sector-by-sector approach and issue the general license which allows companies to go into any sector, including oil and gas," said Human Rights Watch Washington director Tom Malinowski.
He said that U.S. companies understandably don't want to lose out on market share due to the influx of European corporations now set to do business with Burma's energy and mining sectors, but opening up MOGE to vast new sources of financing could have a negative effect on Burmese political reform.
"All the money the Burmese military uses to finance their wars in the ethnic areas and their procurement of illicit materials from North Korea comes from MOGE. If the military wants to hold on to power and resist civilian oversight, this is what would finance their ability to do that. It represents the bulk of the regime's hard earnings," Malinowski said.
Once corporations make long-term investments in Burma's energy sector, it will be almost impossible to get those countries to abrogate those agreements if the tide turns in Burma and the U.S. government decides it wants to reinstate the investment ban. Chevron's stake in Burma was grandfathered in when the investment ban was originally instituted.
Overall, the concern in the human rights community is that the U.S. government is now making diplomatic decisions about Burma policy based on economic considerations, and not national security or the desire to see the Burmese people live a better life.
"For the last 20 years or so, U.S. policy on Burma was focused on promoting a democratic transition and nonproliferation. The desire of U.S. based companies to get contracts was never on the table until the last couple of months. The fact that is now being balanced against longstanding U.S. interests in Burma really does represent a shift in priorities," Malinowski said.
"The bottom line here is that you have Aung San Suu Kyi asking the administration to hold up on allowing unfettered investment in Burma, and the administration went with Chevron over Aung San Suu Kyi."
NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable that the administration shares concerns about MOGE and views MOGE as meriting closer oversight than other firms in Burma. U.S. investors must alert the U.S. government within 60 days of entering into any contract with MOGE, he said
"We are working very hard with MOGE and the wider Government of Burma to quickly improve its operations. We have been pleased with MOGE's and the Government's commitments in this regard, which include engagement with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)," Vietor said. "While we share these concerns we believe that there will be benefits both to the people of Burma and to U.S. investors in allowing U.S. companies, in a careful, calibrated and responsible manner, to engage with MOGE."
Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told The Cable today that Obama's action has freed the Burmese regime and military from any fear of being substantively sanctioned going forward.
"I am sure Obama will be appreciated by the Burmese generals, cronies and U.S. corporations, but not by the people of Burma," he said.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama intends to nominate Ambassador Richard Olsen to be the next U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, three sources with direct knowledge of the pending appointment told The Cable.
Olsen, a senior member of the foreign service, has been serving as the coordinating director for development and economic affairs at U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, since June 2011. If confirmed, he will replace Ambassador Cameron Munter, who announced in May that he would step down from his post after only 18 months on the job. Munter, who presided over the Islamabad embassy during perhaps the worst period in U.S.-Pakistan relations in over a decade, resigned of his own accord and will retire from the foreign service and join the private sector, these sources said.
Before going to Kabul, Olsen was U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2008-2011. He previously served abroad in Mexico, Uganda, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Iraq, and as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. mission to the NATO. His Washington assignments included stints at the State Department Operations Center, NATO desk, the Office of Israel and Palestinian affairs, and the Office of Iraqi Affairs.
Pakistan watchers and experts saw the choice as a reasonable one and generally said Olsen was a competent and safe choice, but that he faces an uphill battle in moving the relationship forward if and when he gets to Islamabad.
"It will help that Olsen understands some aspects of the region. But Kabul is a different place from Islamabad and Rawalpindi, as he will discover rapidly," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. "Pakistan is at once more complex and confounding."
Nawaz said that Olsen's success will depend largely on whether he is given power and influence in the interagency policy process. Munter was reportedly overruled several times when he engaged other administration departments on sensitive issues, such as the use of drone strikes or whether the United States should have apologized for killing 24 Pakistan soldiers last November. As the top U.S. representative in Pakistan, Olsen would also be forced to focus on the U.S. military's pursuit of the Haqqani network and the ratcheting up of the U.S. drone program, both unpopular policies in Pakistan.
"Olsen's biggest challenge will be dealing with a Washington that does not have a clear center of gravity in terms of decisions on relations with Pakistan. That was the biggest obstacle faced by Cameron Munter, who impressed many Pakistanis with his zeal and energy but did not get the support he needed from home," Nawaz said.
Some regional experts think Olsen is being set up for failure because he will never be able to resolve the fundamental disputes between the various parts of the U.S. policy bureaucracy over Pakistan policy. The military and the intelligence community are set to ratchet up their kinetic activities inside Pakistan in advance of the U.S. handover of Afghan security control in 2014, a plan that runs in contrast to the State Department's focus on improving government to government relations and raising the image of the U.S. there.
"The best person in the world will not succeed with a defective policy, which is what we have; more accurately, our policy towards Pakistan is fragmented among several entities," said Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Will Olsen be accepting or influencing decisions of other agencies, some of which seem to be running their own policy towards Pakistan?"
Administration and congressional sources also confirm that Ambassador James Cunningham is set to be named to succeed Ryan Crocker as the U.S. envoy in Kabul. Crocker's health continues to deteriorate and he is expected to return to the U.S. soon.
In other ambassador news, the White House announced Tuesday that the president intends to nominate Dawn Liberi to be ambassador to Burundi, Stephen Mull to be ambassador to Poland, and Walter North to be ambassador to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Republic of Vanuatu.
There's still no word on who will be chosen to replace Ambassador Jim Jeffrey in Iraq, following the withdrawal of former National Security Council staffer Brett McGurk last month. There is some speculation but no hard evidence that former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is in the running.
The Obama administration quietly announced this week that it is scrapping the office of the Global Health Initiative and abandoning plans to move the whole project over to USAID, creating anger and frustration in the non-government organization community.
Following what administration sources described as a knock-down drag-out interagency fight between USAID and CDC over whether the Global Health Initiative, a huge $63 billion project to help the world's poorest announced by President Barack Obama in 2009, would actually be moved to USAID as promised in the State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), the administration has decided to forgo what the QDDR directed and stop trying to consolidate the leadership of the multi-billion dollar program at USAID.
"As a result of our analysis and conclusions, we have made a collective recommendation to close the QDDR benchmark process and shift our focus from leadership within the U.S. Government to global leadership by the U.S. Government. This recommendation has been accepted," read a July 3 blog post by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Ambassador Eric Goosby, Director Thomas Frieden, and Executive Director Lois Quam.
"At the State Department, the GHI Office (S/GHI) will close and the Office of Global Health Diplomacy (S/GHD) will be stood up. Unlike S/GHI's focus on interagency coordination, the S/GHD office's mandate will be to champion the priorities and policies of GHI in the diplomatic arena.... Global Health Initiative will continue as the priority global health initiative of the U.S. Government.... GHI country teams and GHI planning leads will continue to work to implement GHI strategies under the leadership of the U.S. Ambassador."
The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), an umbrella group representing development organizations co-chaired by David Beckmann, George Ingram and Jim Kolbe, today issued a harsh criticism of the administration's decision.
"The Obama Administration unfortunately yielded to inertia and interagency turf battles in deciding not to move leadership of the Global Health Initiative (GHI), America's largest development program, to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), our premier development agency," MFAN wrote. "We are concerned that our partners on the ground will continue to be confused about global health leadership and coordination, which will hamper efforts to effectively transition ownership of development programs to recipient countries.... Viewed through these lenses, the Administration may have undermined its own landmark efforts to increase development effectiveness and accountability."
Development experts Amanda Glassman and Rachel Silverman wrote about the backstory in a blog post on the website of the Center for Global Development. They said the administration has dramatically scaled back its ambitions for GHI by deciding not to consolidate its leadership at USAID.
"The news is deeply disappointing and frustrating on a number of levels. The announcement reflects a breakdown of the inter-agency process. It demonstrates a continued lack of political will to address the hard questions that hamper integration, particularly separate earmarked funding streams and parallel, competing institutions within the U.S. government that had different strategies and relationships with recipient country governments," they wrote. "The bottom line: GHI 1.0 failed on the hard questions, and GHI 2.0 isn't even trying."
Congress directed the State Department and USAID to spend money helping Iraq's minority population but those agencies can't prove they spent the funds appropriately, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report.
"Since 2003, minority groups in Iraq have experienced religiously and ethnically motivated attacks, killings, and forced displacements. Concern for Iraqi religious and ethnic minorities led various congressional committees and Congress as a whole to issue a series of directives to provide assistance to these groups," the GAO wrote. "GAO found that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) could not demonstrate how the projects that it reported to Congress met the provisions of the 2008 directive because of three weaknesses."
First of all, USAID could only demonstrate that about 26 percent or $3.8 million of the $14.8 million in projects USAID conducted were actually spent where Congress directed -- in the Ninewa plain region of Iraq. Second, USAID could not show that minority groups were actually the beneficiaries of those programs. Lastly, USAID did not show it used unobligated Economic Support Funds, as Congress has directed.
Overall, State and USAID spent $26.9 million to respond to two separate congressional directives on the issue, with the vast majority going to essential and humanitarian services and less than $1 million going to cultural preservation.
In its response letter to the GAO, USAID Acting Assistant Administrator for Management Angelique Crumbly wrote that despite the deficiencies the GAO found in USAID's paperwork and record keeping, "USAID met the needs of internally displaced persons and ethnic minorities to a greater extent than what is presented in the GAO report."
Read the entire report here.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, and discussed issues including Agent Orange, soldiers missing in action, and deepening cultural and economic bilateral ties with Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. "The United States greatly appreciates Vietnam's contributions to a collaborative, diplomatic resolution of disputes and a reduction of tensions in the South China Sea," said the secretary, who is accompanied by Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Robert Hormats, Chief of Protocol Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan. Tomorrow Clinton will arrive in Vientiane, Laos, for meetings with Prime Minister Thonsing Thammavong and other senior government officials, making her the first secretary of state to visit the country in 57 years.
In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Monday with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold, spoke at the Community of Democracies Governing Council and the International Women's Leadership Forum, and participated in the Leaders Engaged in New Democracies Network launch. Clinton praised post-Soviet Mongolia as a democratic model for Asia, calling it "an inspiration and a model" that stands "in stark contrast to those governments that continue to resist reforms" -- a none-too-subtle dig at neighboring China. Although Mongolia held parliamentary elections on June 28, the results are still being disputed as no major party was able to form a government.
Secretary Clinton, who is accompanied by Chief of Protocol Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, Ambassador-At-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer, and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, will travel next to Hanoi, Vietnam, to meet with senior Vietnamese leaders.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Paris with Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, where she participated Friday in the third meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People group, an international forum attempting to end Syria's 16 months of violent conflict. Clinton called on member countries to "demand implementation" of the Annan plan, impose "real and immediate consequences" for non-compliance, and make it clear that Russia and China will "pay a price" for "standing up on behalf of the Assad regime."
She also met with Syrian opposition leaders, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and President François Hollande. Her discussion with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas focused on Israeli and Palestinian "efforts to pursue a dialogue." On July 8, Secretary Clinton and Ambassador-At-large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer will attend the Conference on Afghanistan in Tokyo, where donors are "expected to pledge a total of $35 billion in development aid through 2015," according to Agence France Presse. For details on the rest of Clinton's trip to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, check out yesterday's Cable preview.
Assistant Secretary Gordon will also travel to Croatia, Serbia, Kosvo, and Cyprus, to attend the Croatia Summit, meet with senior government officials, and work with EU partners.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington today on a two-week trip that includes a stop in Israel, a stop in Egypt, and a new effort to head off a possible new round of tensions with Palestinian leaders.
Clinton's travel will take her to France, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Egypt and Israel. The first item on Clinton's international agenda is Syria, and Clinton will attend the Friday meeting in Paris of the Friends of Syria group, the U.S.- and Turkey-led diplomatic initiative that is meant to coordinate international action to resolve the Syrian crisis.
Clinton isn't expected to make any significant changes in the U.S. position on Syria, which is still, in a nutshell, to avoid direct intervention, look the other way while Gulf Arab states arms the opposition, and work with Russia to facilitate a Yemen-like political transition.
"[T]he secretary will consult with her colleagues on steps to increase pressure on the Assad regime and to support UN-Arab League Special Envoy Annan's efforts to end the violence and facilitate a political transition to a post-Assad Syria," read a statement sent out by the State Department today.
While she's in Paris, Clinton will also meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, "to discuss both parties' efforts to pursue a dialogue and build on President Abbas' exchange of letters with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu," the State Department said.
Reuters reported that reported that Clinton requested the meeting and will also press Abbas not to pursue a new United Nations resolution that condemns settlements in "occupied" territories. Expectations on the Palestinian side for any progress in Paris are low, according to Reuters.
On the Israeli side, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told an audience last week at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival that a new unilateral settlement freeze was not likely. "The Palestinians under Abu Mazen refused once and again to get into the room without a precondition... I believe that most of the responsibility is on their shoulders," he said.
The U.S. and Palestinian leaderships have also been at loggerheads over the Palestinian drive to seek membership in U.N. bodies, such as UNESCO. U.S. law required the end of all American contributions to UNESCO after that body admitted Palestine as a member earlier this year.
On July 8, Clinton will go on to Tokyo to attend an international conference on the future of Afghanistan, a follow-up to last December's conference in Bonn, Germany. In Tokyo, Clinton will talk about the "transformation decade" in Afghanistan, which she will say begins in 2015, after the bulk of U.S. and international forces leave that country.
"The Afghan Government in turn will lay out its plan for economic reform and continued steps toward good governance," the State Department said in its release.
The next day Clinton will go to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to speak to a meeting of the Governing Board of the Community of Democracies, an informal multilateral coalition of countries that promotes democratic values,, speak at a women's conference, and meet with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj and Prime Minister Sükhbaataryn Batbold.
On July 10 Clinton moves on to Hanoi for a day of meetings with government and business leaders before traveling to Vientiane, Laos, on July 11. Her stop in Laos will mark the first visit to that country -- one of the world's last avowedly communist states -- by a U.S. Secretary of State in 57 years and Clinton will meet with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong.
After her brief stop in Laos, Clinton will arrive late in the day July 11 in Cambodia. While there, she will participate in three major conferences: the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting, and the U.S.-ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference. Tensions between China and its neighbors over maritime disputes is sure to be high on the agenda.
After two days in Phnom Penh, Clinton will go to the city of Siem Reap on July 14 to meet with business leaders and deliver the keynote address at the Lower Mekong Initiative Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Dialogue. The Lower Mekong Initiative is a development-focused forum that joins the U.S. with several southeast Asian nations.
The next day it's off to Cairo, where Clinton is reported to have a meeting scheduled with the new President Mohamed Morsy. She will stay in Egypt until July 16, and will meet with senior government officials, civil society, and business leaders, and inaugurate the U.S. consulate in Alexandria.
The last stop on Clinton's tour is Israel, where she will be meeting with as yet undisclosed Israeli leaders "to discuss peace efforts and a range of regional and bilateral issues of mutual concern," the State Department said.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is also expected to travel to Israel to meet with leaders there sometime this summer.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "sorry" to Pakistan today and announced that Pakistan would resume allowing U.S. military goods to flow through its border with Afghanistan, but her near-apology was only one piece in a much larger set of moving parts in the effort to restore some normalcy to the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
"We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military," Clinton said in a Tuesday statement, referring to the Nov. 25 incident when NATO forces killed 24 Pakistan soldiers on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. "We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again."
Clinton spoke with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar by phone Tuesday and said that Khar had promised Pakistan would reopen its supply lines for U.S. military flows into Afghanistan, which have been closed down for six months in retaliation for the killings. Pakistan dropped its demand for fees of up to $5,000 per truck and will not even charge the $250 per truck the United States was paying before the incident occurred, Clinton said.
She also indicated that the progress announced today carried with it the prospect of tackling some of the larger issues plaguing the bilateral relationship, namely Pakistan's reluctance to go after the Taliban and other militant groups as well as what the United States sees as Pakistan's refusal to play a useful role in reconciliation talks to end the Afghanistan war.
"Foreign Minister Khar and I talked about the importance of taking coordinated action against terrorists who threaten Pakistan, the United States, and the region; of supporting Afghanistan's security, stability, and efforts towards reconciliation; and of continuing to work together to advance the many other shared interests we have," Clinton said.
Tuesday's announcement came after months of protracted and often excruciating negotiations between the two governments. On the U.S. side of the table, the process was led by Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides, who was in Pakistan Monday, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Peter Lavoy, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman.
ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen also traveled to Pakistan twice over the past two weeks, once at the invitation of Pakistani Army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and again as part of larger discussions regarding the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The internal U.S. process that led to today's remarks by Clinton was extensive -- and rocky at times. It has been well reported that the State Department, especially soon-to-be-former U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter, urged the White House to apologize long ago but was overruled due to objections from the Defense Department, where officials were angered by the fact that the Pakstani military accused the U.S. military of killing the soldiers intentionally.
Three administration sources confirmed to The Cable that between December and early spring, the National Security Council convened at least 8 separate high-level meetings to debate the apology, and ultimately, the White House earlier this year decided to issue one.
The Pakistani government in early Spring asked the White House not to issue the apology because the Pakistani parliament was in the middle of its comprehensive review of the bilateral relationship. Then, following deadly attacks in Kabul on NATO forces in April, which were traced back to the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, the White House took the apology off the table.
That's why today's comments by Clinton came as a huge surprise to many Pakistan-watchers. But experts saw in her comments a careful dance that the administration thinks represents a compromise, because Clinton never actually said the word "apology" or "apologize."
"It allows the administration to say to Congress, we didn't ‘apologize,' we said we were ‘sorry,'" said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. He emphasized that discussions about several thorny issues in the relationship are still ongoing.
Asked directly at today's press briefing if the "sorry" comment constituted an "apology," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland wouldn't say that it did.
"The statement speaks for itself, the words are all there, and I'm not going to improve on it here," she said.
In conjunction with Tuesday's announcement, the Obama administration has agreed to hand over about $1.2 billion to the Pakistanis in Coalition Support Funds (CSF) that were owed but delayed as part of the overall unhappiness between the two governments, two administration sources confirmed. Pakistan, which views the funds as reimbursements the United Sates agreed to pay in exchange for Pakistan's help in fighting the war on terror, argues that America owes it a larger sum.
"It's not a coincidence," Nawaz said, referring to the timing of the CSF funding. "This was part of the overall discussion."
The deal may not stop there.
Pakistan might still ask for money to help repair the infrastructural wear and tear that comes along with thousands of NATO trucks traversing its highways. The Pakistanis might also demand a new system that institutes some regularity in the CSF funds because the U.S. government currently demands detailed receipts and then rejects about 40 percent of the Pakistani reimbursement requests.
In the past, the United States has used delays in the CSF funds to punish Pakistan when the administration is frustrated with Pakistani actions.
"Internally on the U.S. side, when the administration has been pissed off at the Pakistanis, they've just said, ‘Oh, we'll slow down the CSF funds and just not tell them,'" one former U.S. official told The Cable.
Getting the CSF funding was always the real goal of the negotiations as far as the Pakistanis were concerned, according to the former official.
"The Pakistani government doesn't care about the transit fees as much as they care about the coalition support funds," the official said. "CSF offers them more of a short-term benefit. The reason they were making such a big deal about the transit fees before was because that was their negotiating position."
The U.S. side still wants concrete steps to show that the Pakistani government is moving more aggressively to stem the flow of fighters from its territory into Afghanistan, where they regularly attack and kill U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces. Both sides want a better system of on-the-ground operational coordination to make sure incidents like the November killings aren't repeated.
Clinton didn't mention the CSF funds in her speech, perhaps because that money could still be held up by Congress, which has been engaged in some serious bipartisan Pakistan-bashing, especially since a Pakistani court sentenced the doctor who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden to 33 years in prison.
After the administration notifies Congress it wants to release the funds, a notification that could come today, Congress has 15 days to reject it or the money gets released.
A key Republican in the debate over Pakistan will be Sen. Lindsey Graham, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee. In a Tuesday statement, Graham indicated he would support the administration's position.
"These supply lines are essential to supporting our troops in Afghanistan and I believe the terms and conditions negotiated by Secretary Clinton's team are acceptable to American interests throughout the region," he said.
But Graham also indicated that any thawing of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship would only be endorsed by Congress if and when Pakistan gets more serious about helping in Afghanistan.
"This agreement is a good step in the right direction, but more has to be done between the United States and Pakistan in the area of counterterrorism," he said. "If the Pakistani military intelligence services would engage in aggressive efforts to combat terrorism in coordination with coalition forces, it would tremendously enhance our successes in Afghanistan, provide stability to the Pakistani government, and eventually a better life for people on both sides of the border."
Nawaz warned that the relationship is still very fragile and that any number of things could send it spiraling downward once again, including a clumsy drone strike, a U.S. troop incursion into Pakistan, or another attack on NATO forces by Pakistan-based militants.
"This is only a Band Aid for this relationship. Any number of new crises or recurring crises is likely to trigger another round of recrimination," he said. "‘Sorry' was the hardest word, but it's a bit too early to celebrate. We're not yet out of the woods."
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
The impending release of a highly critical report by the State Department's Inspector General's office prompted the sudden resignation Friday of U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Scott Gration, according to administration and congressional sources.
The report was described to The Cable by multiple people briefed on its contents as one of the worst reviews of an ambassador's performance written by the IG's staff in several years. The bulk of the criticisms focused on Gration's terrible relationship with embassy staff since he took over as ambassador in February 2011 following a controversial two-year stint as President Barack Obama's special envoy for Sudan. The report is complete, but Gration still has the opportunity to write a formal response before the report is publicly released, these sources said.
Gration, a retired Air Force general, was always a contentious figure inside the Obama administration. After becoming one of the first senior military figures to openly support and actively campaign for Obama in 2007, he was embraced by the team that would eventually form the president's closest national security inner circle. Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough once described Gration as one of the top three national security advisors to Obama, along with former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak. He was rumored during the transition to be a candidate to lead NASA.
Gration's roots in Africa run deep. He grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya to missionary parents and speaks fluent Swahili. As Sudan envoy, he took a stance widely seen among activists as too solicitous to the Khartoum regime, focusing more on incentives than pressures -- or, as he infelicitously once described them, "cookies" and "gold stars." That stance caused friction between Gration and other top Obama officials, especially U.N. ambassador Susan Rice.
By mid-2010, Gration's relationships with various groups working on Sudan had also deteriorated, and by late in the year, Gration was lobbying internally to be appointed to the Kenya post, arguing that his years of ties to that country would serve him well. Following the reasonably successful January 2011 referendum that ratified Sudan's split into two countries, Gration got his wish and was given the job he sought.
But Gration's independent streak and insistence on doing things his own way, outside of the interagency policy process, ran afoul of the embassy staff in Nairobi almost immediately. Multiple sources familiar with the disputes confirmed reports Friday that Gration preferred to use his Gmail account for official business and set up private offices in his residence -- and an embassy bathroom -- to conduct business outside the purview of the embassy staff.
Other sources close to the embassy who worked with Gration related several anecdotes circulated by current and former embassy staff that are meant to highlight Gration's erratic, controlling, and sometime bullying behavior.
Gration is said to have, upon entering the embassy, ordered that all heights of all the tables be adjusted and that all the clocks in the embassy be recalibrated, an indication of his eccentric style of micromanagement.
At one point in his battles with his newfound employees, Gration told embassy staff he would "shoot them in the head" if they didn't follow his instructions, and the staff formally complained about that remark, according to one unconfirmed account.
Gration often bragged about his close ties to the White House and to the president himself, although the White House stopped returning his phone calls after the IG's investigation results became known inside the administration. Gration was twice disciplined by the State Department for making public statements that did not comport with administration policy, although the exact details of those statements is unclear.
E-mails sent to Gration's State Department account seeking comment were not returned. The State Department declined to comment on the above allegations, but also declined to deny them.
Some in Washington had the perception that Gration was performing well as ambassador and maintained close ties to the Kenyan government leadership. Congressional aides said that they were waiting for the report and reserving judgment on Gration until all the facts became clear.
In his note announcing his resignation, Gration highlighted his differences with his Obama administration interlocutors. "Differences with Washington regarding my leadership style and certain priorities lead me to believe that it's now time to leave," Gration said.
For the community in Washington that follows U.S.-Kenya relations, the focus going forward should be on finding a new envoy who can hit the ground running, as Kenya's political system faces severe risks in the wake of an explosion of ethnic and tribal violence following the December 2007 election.
Kenya is also in the front lines of the battle to stabilize Somalia, as the Kenyan military's campaign to oust that country's al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militants from their southern stronghold has been met with fierce resistance and threats of terrorist retaliation.
"In light of the potential for violence in Kenya during the run-up to the 2013 national elections, and the challenges of sustaining full implementation of constitutional reform, we urge President Obama to immediately nominate a senior individual with deep conflict prevention expertise to replace Ambassador Scott Gration," read a statement Friday by the Kenya Working Group, a team of experts organized by the Center for Strategic Studies and the Center for American Progress.
"The President's nominee should understand Kenya's complex history and the current political landscape - as well as that of the surrounding region. Given the crucial but delicate transition underway in Kenya, the nominee must also understand the critical role the U.S. government can play supporting Kenyan efforts to realize a successful democratic transition, and have the ability to work productively with all U.S. agencies and key international partners present in Kenya."
ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration announced Thursday that it will exempt China and Singapore from economic sanctions for the next 180 days because the two countries have significantly decreased their crude oil imports from Iran.
An authoritative statement published on a China energy website on June 27 indicated a structural change in China's crude oil imports due to the downward pressure on the economy, including a 25 percent year-on-year reduction between January and May of crude oil imports from Iran to China and a prediction that crude oil imports from Iran would decrease for 2012 relative to last year.
"A total of 20 world economies have now qualified for such an exception," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's official statement reads. "Today marks an important milestone in the implementation of the NDAA[National Defense Authorization Act] and U.S. sanctions toward Iran."
Iran estimates that sanctions have caused a 20 to 30 percent reduction in oil exports so far, and the International Energy Agency calculates that reducing crude exports will cost Iran at least $8 billion in lost revenue each quarter. The growing impact of sanctions has also caused massive inflation and a sharp increase in unemployment. Substantial sanctions on 24 Iranian banks will also make it increasingly difficult for Iran to support the rial and conduct international trade.
A new round of technical talks under the auspices of the "P5+1" are scheduled for July 3 in Istanbul, but the State Department plans to forge ahead with applying additional pressure on Iran.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Latvian president Andris Berzins, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, and Foreign Minister Edgar Rinkevics in Riga. She will depart for St. Petersburg later today to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's Women and the Economy Forum with Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer and hold a bilateral meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Clinton is accompanied by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan. She then heads to Geneva for an emergency meeting on Syria.
U.S. senators grilled Derek Mitchell, nominated by President Barack Obama on May 17 as the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in two decades, in a confirmation hearing Wednesday, but they used the session primarily to urge the administration to allow American investment in the country's oil and gas sectors.
Mitchell has served as special coordinator for Burma policy since last year, but democratic reforms and the election of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament have prompted the Obama administration to step up its diplomatic engagement with the Burmese government.
Although the State Department has proposed a "sector by sector" plan to renewing private sector relations, the White House has not decided if it will lift sanctions on Burma's notoriously opaque and abusive energy industry.
"There's nothing I can say here definitively on this, because it is an ongoing internal, interagency discussion," Mitchell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "But ... we are not looking to exclude any sectors from this."
Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), addressing "rumors" that the administration plans to "exclude oil firms from new rules allowing U.S. investment in the country," argued that such a policy would be detrimental to U.S. companies as foreign firms continue to sign oil and gas exploration agreements with Burma.
"This or any other ‘carve-out strategy' would be a strategic mistake," he said. "I believe that U.S. companies including the oil and gas companies can play a positive role in the effort by demonstrating high standards or responsibility, responsible business conduct, and transparency -- including respect for human rights in Burma."
Suu Kyi, on the other hand, is not as optimistic, and cautioned foreign firms against partnering with the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise earlier this month during a speech in Geneva.
In January, Burma's Energy Ministry estimated its natural gas reserves at 22.5 trillion cubic feet, and the international bidding process for 25 offshore oil and gas blocks is scheduled to take place within two to three months.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, and Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomoja in Helsinki to discuss issues including Russia, energy and the environment, and women in Afghanistan. Clinton, who is accompanied by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, also attended a Climate and Clean Air Coalition event and toured the Marimekko Factory and Design Space. Next stop: Riga, Latvia.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved a bill to sanction human rights violators around the world, named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died after allegedly being tortured in prison by Russian officials.
The Cable has obtained the latest draft of the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, which passed the committee unanimously Tuesday afternoon by a voice vote after a short debate. The bill imposes restrictions on the financial activities and travel of foreign officials found to have been connected to various human rights violations in any country. The House version of the bill, approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, targets only Russian human rights violators. That difference that will have to be worked out between the two chambers before the bill can become law.
"This bill is absolutely motivated by the circumstances of Sergei Magnitsky, but it is universal in its application," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the main sponsor of the bill, after the vote. "The sponsors of the House bill have encouraged me to keep it universal, so I think it will not be difficult to get the House to go along with the universality."
The de-emphasis of Russia in the bill is ostensibly meant to tamp down Russian anger over the legislation. The Russian government has promised widespread retaliation, saying that passage of the Magnitsky Act could negatively affect Russian cooperation with Washington on issues ranging from Afghanistan and Iran to nuclear weapons.
Cardin said the bill will now be joined with legislation introduced earlier this month to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, needed so that U.S. businesses can take advantage of Russia's pending accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The PNTR bill introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) earlier this month and co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) would also repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that sanctioned the Soviet Union for denying Jews the right to emigrate.
"When PNTR comes to the floor, that's the driving force behind the timing [of passing the Magnitsky bill in the full Senate]," Cardin said. He added that if it was done in July that would also coincide with pending action by the Russian Duma to formally join the WTO. Whether Baucus would join the two bills in his committee or on the Senate floor is still unclear.
The bulk of the debate inside Tuesday's SFRC business meeting focused on Cardin's amendment to adjust the way the list of names of human rights violators is managed. Cardin's amendment would impose some more requirements on the administration if it wants to keep the names of the human rights violated secret in a classified annex, rather than publish them publicly.
SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) was the lone vote against the Cardin amendment and unsuccessfully tried to get Cardin to withdraw the amendment during the hearing. He is working to preserve more administration flexibility in administrating the classified list of human rights violators and said that there would be more changes in the bill before it reaches the Senate floor.
"We need to be very mindful of the need for the United States not to always be pointing fingers ... in some ways we could be doing better ourselves on a number of things," Kerry said. "Nevertheless, human rights are in our DNA and we will always be a nation that stands up for and fights for human rights."
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) was set to offer an amendment that would sunset the penalties in the bill, meaning that they would expire after five years. Ultimately he decided not to offer the amendment because it was sure to fail, according to multiple Senate aides, but he might offer it at a later stage of the process.
The perception among Hill aides in both parties is that the administration is working hard behind the scenes to weaken the penalties in the Magnitsky bill and provide the State Department greater leeway to keep the names of the violators from becoming public. Kerry and Cardin tried to dispel that idea after the meeting.
"I want as strong a bill as possible," Kerry said, declining to go into specifics of what the administration was telling him about the bill.
Cardin said the administration is still not taking a public position on the Magnitsky Act or the changes being proposed by various senators as the bill moves forward.
"The administration chose not to comment and I think that's where they are," Cardin said.
Earlier Tuesday, McCain sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to use existing executive orders to sanction the Klyuev Group, a Russian crime organization alleged to be involved in Magnitsky's persecution.
In remarks Tuesday morning at a Freedom House event, McCain lashed out against the idea of keeping the names of the human rights violators subject to the Magnitsky bill secret.
"The fact is, our whole effort here is to make public the names and actions of the people that we think are engaged in these crimes, so I really have deep concerns about that," McCain said. "On the Magnitsky issue, the State Department has been less than enthusiastic... I think it's based on an unfounded assumption or optimism that things are going to improve between the United States and Russia. I have not seen that improvement."
Allison Good contributing reporting.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee will start work on a State Department authorization bill it hopes can be the first international affairs policy bill to pass Congress in several years.
The Cable has obtained the draft bill, which will be the basis for a debate and amendments Wednesday in a markup session to be led by HFAC Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). In a note sent to committee members, the majority staff emphasized that the 76-page bill was meant to be one that both parties could support and pass without much controversy.
"We appreciate all of the input and forbearance that has gone into the creation of this limited, bipartisan collection of basic authorities on which we can reach consensus, in the hope of being able to authorize the State Department for the first time in a decade," the note read.
Whether or not the bill will remain bipartisan and noncontroversial after the markup remains to be seen. Last year, the House committee marked up a State Department authorization bill and added provisions through amendments that would have done things like defunded American contributions to the Organization of American States and restricted foreign aid to a host of countries -- nonstarters for the Obama administration. That bill never made it over to the Senate.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) marked up a Senate version of the State Department authorization bill in 2010 but that bill was never acted on by the full Senate. The authorization bills are supposed to set policies before the appropriations bills are enacted to distribute funds. The last time a State Department authorization bill was passed by both chambers and signed into law was 2003.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departs today for Europe, where she will travel to Finland, Latvia, and Russia through June 30. Tomorrow, Clinton will hold bilateral meetings with senior Finnish officials in Helsinki to discuss foreign-policy issues including Syria, Iran, and the European economy. On June 28, Clinton will travel to Riga to meet with senior Latvian officials about NATO missions and the country's economic recovery. From there, the secretary will go to St. Petersburg, where she will lead the U.S. delegation to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's Women and the Economy Forum. Clinton, who is accompanied by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, is also scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and civil society leaders.
Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Rick Barton is in Central America through June 29, where he will travel to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to meet with embassy partners and key stakeholders about issues related to the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), such as violence, corruption, human rights, and criminal organizations. The U.S. has allocated $260 million to CARSI as the proliferation of narcotics, weapons, and gangs has destabilized the region's local and national governments.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.