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.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the U.N.'s Rio+20 conference on sustainable development, where she will participate in the U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative launch and hold meetings with Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati, Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, and Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic. Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental Scientific Affairs Kerri-Ann Jones, Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs Reta Jo Lewis, and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan are also at the conference.
Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Mike Hammer are in Moscow for the final day of P5+1 talks with Iran. The talks "broke no new ground" as of Monday evening, the New York Times reported, and sanctions imposed on Iranian oil by the United States and the European Union are set to begin in July. One Iranian diplomat described Monday's atmosphere as "not positive at all," and many consider the talks deadlocked, but Tehran is reportedly willing to discuss the production of high-grade uranium, which the six powers want to negotiate down to a lower level of purity.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Los Cabos, Mexico, with President Barack Obama for the G-20 summit, where she will participate in discussions focusing on the European economic crisis. Clinton is slated to hold a bilateral meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu this afternoon.
President Obama is expected meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit -- a meeting that could be tense after Clinton accused Russia of sending attack helicopters to the Syrian regime. Robert Hormats, Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, is accompanying the secretary and the president.
Nearly half the Senate told President Barack Obama today that unless Iran gives three specific concessions at this weekend's talks with world powers in Moscow, he should abandon the ongoing negotiations over the country's nuclear program.
"It is past time for the Iranians to take the concrete steps that would reassure the world that their nuclear program is, as they claim, exclusively peaceful," wrote 44 senators in a Friday bipartisan letter organized by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). "Absent these steps, we must conclude that Tehran is using the talks as a cover to buy time as it continues to advance toward nuclear weapons capability. We know that you share our conviction that allowing Iran to gain this capability is unacceptable."
The senators wrote that the "absolute minimum" Iran must do immediately to justify further talks is to shut down the Fordo uranium enrichment facility near Qom, freeze all uranium enrichment above 5 percent, and ship all uranium enriched above 5 percent out of the country.
"We understand that this was the very proposal that the P5+1 advanced during the Baghdad meeting," the senators wrote, referring to the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. "Were Iran to agree to and verifiably implement these steps, this would demonstrate a level of commitment by Iran to the process and could justify continued discussions beyond the meeting in Moscow."
Few expect the Moscow meeting to yield unilateral steps by Iran of the nature sought by the senators. The letter also makes no mention of what confidence-building measures the United States or the international community could or should take in exchange for Iran's own steps.
On June 11, the P5+1 held a meeting in Strasbourg at the political directors' level to prepare for the upcoming Moscow talks.
The senators urge the president not to ease or delay the embargo, writing that only when the Iranian government believes the sanctions are to be "unremitting and crippling" will a diplomatic breakthrough will be possible.
"On the other hand, if the sessions in Moscow produce no substantive agreement, we urge you to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists," they wrote. "As you have rightly noted, ‘the window for diplomacy is closing.' Iran's leaders must realize that you mean precisely that."
The letter is also signed by Charles Schumer (D-NY), Susan Collins (R-ME), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), James Risch (R-ID), Ron Wyden (D-OR), David Vitter (R-LA), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Mark Pryor (D-AR), John Cornyn (R-TX), Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA), John Boozman (R-AR), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Scott Brown (R-MA), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), John Hoeven (R-ND), Jeff Merkeley (D-OR), Daniel Coats (R-IN), Christopher Coons (D-DE), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Patrick Toomey (R-PA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Mike Lee (R-UT), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Rob Portman (R-OH), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Dean Heller (R-NV), Jon Tester (D-MT), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Mark Warner (D-VA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Mark Begich (D-AK).
"The message of this letter is that Congress' patience is running out when it comes to meetings that don't yield results," said a senior Senate aide. "The Iranians have been given every last opportunity to demonstrate their good faith and step back from the brink. Instead, they keep pushing forward with their nuclear program, and we keep asking for yet another round of talks. This is not sustainable."
The Senate voted 62-37 Thursday to approve the nomination of Maria Carmen Aponte to be the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, roughly six months after they rejected her nomination in a vote last December.
Aponte had been sent to El Salvador in late 2010 as ambassador through a recess appointment because her nomination was held up by Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Marco Rubio (R-FL). DeMint had been demanding more information about Aponte's long-ago romance with Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban-born insurance salesman who was alleged to have ties to both the FBI and Castro's intelligence apparatus.
Her recess appointment expired at the end of 2011 and a late December effort to confirm her, led by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) failed. Aponte had to return to Washington and leave her post.
Since December, Hispanic and Puerto Rican advocacy groups have been upping the pressure on Republican senators to abandon their opposition to the Aponte nomination. Congressional sources said that Rubio was confronted by these groups as well as multiple major donors over the issue.
"Senator Marco Rubio's support will be key to overcoming these hurdles and getting Ambassador Aponte confirmed. Without his backing, the U.S. will lose a stellar diplomat in an important part of the world," read a call to action by the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda.
In today's vote, Rubio switched sides and voted for Aponte's confirmation.
Other GOP senators who switched over to support Aponte were Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IL), who has little to lose by bucking his caucus now that he has been voted out of his Senate seat. Still 37 Republican senators voted against Aponte.
After the vote, Reid said that the White House had been intensely engaged over the last few weeks on the Aponte nomination. For the White House, the nomination is a way to show support for and connections with the Hispanic community in an election year.
"I'm so glad she will be able to renew her old job," said Reid. "She's an excellent ambassador. She served with distinction and that's why she was confirmed today."
The current U.S. ambassador to Iraq and his two most recent predecessors joined together to defend the nomination of Brett McGurk to be the next U.S. envoy in Baghdad, countering calls from several GOP senators for President Barack Obama to withdraw the nomination.
"We write to express our enthusiastic support for Brett McGurk's nomination to serve as the next U.S. Ambassador to Iraq," Jim Jeffrey, Chris Hill, and Ryan Crocker wrote in a letter today to Senate Foreign Relations Committee heads John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN), obtained by The Cable.
"Each of us has previously served in this post, and we share a unique perspective on what it entails," they wrote. "Equally important, each of us has served alongside Brett over a period that now spans eight years. We know him well and we have all relied on him at critical moments. It is from these personal experiences that we note our strongest possible endorsement of Brett's nomination, and we urge the Senate to act swiftly in confirming him."
Jeffrey has been the ambassador in Iraq since 2010, Hill served in that post from 2009 to 2010, and Crocker held the job from 2007 to 2009. Crocker is now the ambassador to Afghanistan and is expected to leave that job soon due to health reasons.
In their letter, the former ambassadors argue that McGurk showed his understanding of the complexities facing Iraq in his June 6 confirmation hearing and said that he has the full trust and confidence of the current leadership team at the embassy.
"We urgently need an ambassador in Iraq and, if confirmed, Brett will be ready to lead from day one," they said.
The former ambassadors noted that the Obama administration called on McGurk to return to Iraq after he left government service in 2009 and said that they relied on McGurk's expertise, leadership, and judgment when dealing with sensitive and important issues. They also said McGurk "cares deeply about Iraq and its people" and "is uniquely positioned to build on all that America has sacrificed over this past decade and to establish the strongest possible relationship between our two countries."
"We need an Ambassador to Iraq," the ambassadors wrote. "Brett is the right man for the job."
McGurk's confirmation vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled for June 19. Kerry has yet to say whether or not he will vote in favor of McGurk's nomination.
"Senator Kerry has said that there are questions and we're in the process of finding answers and evaluating the situation," his spokeswoman Jodi Seth told The Cable
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, actor Ben Affleck, and Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman are all joining together this week for a major conference devoted to preventing childhood death.
The U.S., Ethiopian, and Indian governments are the hosts of the two-day Call to Action for Child Survival, being held Thursday and Friday at Washington's Georgetown University. Other notable speakers at the conference include Sen. Johnny Isaakson (R-GA), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, the first lady of Mozambique Maria Da Luz Guebuza, Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, and many others.
More than 700 leaders from the private sector, government, and civil society will be there, including representation from more than 80 countries, with over 50 countries represented at the ministerial level.
"Every child deserves to have a fifth birthday and even this year more than seven and a half million children will die before their fifth birthday," Shah told The Cable in an interview.
"We've brought together experts around the world to create a new partnership that will be launching to really help eliminate preventable child death," he said. "We think that goal is achievable and we're having this call to action on Thursday."
The event will follow another large development conference going on in Washington this week. Wednesday was the last of three days in the first annual Frontiers in Development conference, also hosted by USAID at Georgetown.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) spoke at the Monday-morning kickoff session of the conference and made a detailed argument in favor of U.S. foreign aid budgets despite the nation's fiscal woes.
"Amid these financial threats and budgetary realities, it is inevitable that some will question the role of the United States in global development," he said. "But I would assert this morning that development assistance, when properly administered, remains a bargain for U.S. national security and for our own economic and moral standing in the world."
The conference also featured speeches by Joyce Banda, President of Malawi, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, Atifete Jahjaga, President of Kosovo, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Adm. James Stavridis, NSC Senior Director Gayle Smith, former Irish President Mary Robinson, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides, former presidential daughter Barbara P. Bush, and actress Mandy Moore.
"We think development is going through this amazing transformation and it's a transformation based on absolute demand for results when we spend taxpayer dollars and when we work abroad," Shah told The Cable. "This conference is one step in that direction. It's intended to bring thought leaders from around the world together."
No taxpayer dollars are being used for the event, Shah said. It's funded privately by groups such as the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.
"They recognize we are at a pivotal moment where we can either elevate development and make it a serious part of how America projects values abroad in an effort to build a safer and more prosperous world, or we can turn the other way and cede our historic leadership role in this space to other emerging economies in Asia and elsewhere," he said. "It's our choice."
Six Republican senators, all on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), have formally asked President Barack Obama to withdraw the nomination of Brett McGurk to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
The committee has set a vote on the McGurk nomination for June 19, but that vote is now in doubt.
The GOP senators' concerns include that McGurk does not have enough experience for the job, that he was a key part of the unsuccessful effort to negotiate a residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq past 2011, that he isn't accepted by some Iraqi political groups, and that his judgment and conduct in Iraq as exposed in leaked e-mails with a reporter he was dating have hurt his credibility.
"Recent information has surfaced that calls into question the prudence of moving forward with the nominee at this time," wrote Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC), James Inhofe (R-OK), Marco Rubio (R-FL), John Barrasso (R-WY), Mike Lee (R-UT), and James Risch (R-ID). "As members of the committee, with the responsibility of providing advice and consent, we write to respectfully urge you to reconsider this nomination. There are strong concerns about Mr. McGurk's qualifications, his ability to work with Iraqi officials, and now his judgment."
The letter was first reported by the Washington Free Beacon.
The senators wrote that McGurk, who has served in Iraq and in the White House in various capacities over the past 8 years, has "little direct management experience," leaving him unprepared to head up the largest U.S. embassy in the world, in the center of an extremely volatile region. His most recent position was as a senior advisor to Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, focusing on the Status of Forces Agreement negotiations in 2011 that broke down over a dispute about legal immunity for U.S. troops in Iraq.
The senators also indirectly referenced a letter from Waheed Al Sammarraie, the D.C. representative of the office of former Iraqi prime minister and opposition leader Ayad Allawi, who wrote to Congress saying that his party would not work with McGurk due to the would-be ambassador's allegedly close ties to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. That letter was later retracted and most Iraqi political groups have said they would work with McGurk if he becomes ambassador.
The senators also referenced the revelation that McGurk's relationship with his current wife Gina Chon began while he was serving as a national security official in Iraq. The Wall Street Journal accepted Chon's resignation Tuesday, saying that she had improperly shared unpublished news articles with McGurk and failed to disclose their relationship to her editors.
"The public release of information detailing unprofessional conduct demonstrates poor judgment and will affect the nominee's credibility in the country where he has been nominated to serve... Together these issues cannot be overlooked," the senators wrote. "The U.S.-Iraq relationship is of utmost importance to us, and we respectfully request that you withdraw this nominee and nominate someone with the qualifications necessary to ensure success in this position."
The White House and State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the letter. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) also did not immediately respond.
The Democrats hold a majority on the committee and could approve McGurk's nomination over GOP objections. Then the nomination would then go to the floor, where it could face holds from any or all of the senators who signed the letter. McGurk also faces opposition outside the committee from Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), and Mark Kirk (R-IL).
White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the McGurk nomination at his briefing today.
"The President has nominated Brett McGurk to be the ambassador to Iraq. We believe that our nation will be greatly served by his experience in Iraq, and we look forward to the Senate's advice and consent on his appointment," he said.
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Istanbul to convene a new worldwide forum of countries to share info and help integrate efforts to fight terrorism -- but Israel wasn't invited.
In her opening remarks at the June 7 forum, Clinton framed the terrorism challenge as a common world cause and emphasized the need to build up civilian institutions, coordinate anti-terror efforts, and establish a unified, long-term strategy for fighting terrorist groups' ideology and their sources of funding.
"We view this forum as a key vehicle for galvanizing action on these fronts and for driving a comprehensive, strategic approach to counterterrorism," Clinton said, standing alongside Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu. The United States and Turkey are the co-chairs of the initiative, known as the Global Counterterrorism Forum.
Although Clinton mentioned that terrorism is a challenge in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Maghreb, Turkey, and Europe, she didn't mention Israel or any of the groups that support terrorist attacks against Israeli interests, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
"We underscore our condemnation of all acts of terrorism, which cannot be justified on any grounds whatsoever, and our continuing commitment to oppose terrorism irrespective of the motives of the perpetrators of such acts," read the September 2011 political declaration that established the forum.
Although 29 countries and the European Union were invited to be founding members, Israel was not. After facing repeated questions at last week's briefings, the State Department put out the following explanation as to why Israel was not included:
"Our idea with the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) was to bring together a limited number of traditional donors, front line states, and emerging powers develop a more robust, yet representative, counterterrorism capacity-building platform. A number of our close partners with considerable experience countering and preventing terrorism are not included among the GCTF's founding members," the statement said. "We have discussed the GCTF and ways to involve Israel in its activities on a number of occasions, and are committed to making this happen."
The founding members are Algeria, Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Morocco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The State Department's explanation wasn't enough to satisfy critics of the administration, who point out that Israel is an ally and has more experience with terrorism and counterterrorism than, say Japan, or Switzerland.
Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) joined together Monday to protest the Obama administration's decision to exclude Israel from the new forum, in a letter to Clinton.
"As you know, there are few countries in the world that have suffered more from terrorism than Israel, and few governments that have more experience combating this threat than that of Israel," they wrote. "We strongly believe that Israel would both benefit from, and contribute enormously to, this kind of exchange. We look forward to hearing from you about whether the administration shares our view that Israel rightfully belongs as a full participant in the and what, if any, steps you are prepared to take to right this wrongful omission."
The Israeli government hasn't publicly complained about the snub and the Israeli embassy in Washington declined to comment, but multiple Congressional sources said that Israeli officials have complained privately to them, saying the Israeli government was unhappy about being left out.
"Obviously the U.S. is looking to adhere to the wishes of Turkey and the Turks have made it very clear they don't want the Israelis there," said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "But since this is a U.S.-sponsored event, hosted in Turkey, the U.S. should not be listening to anybody about who they should or should not invite."
The bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) was introduced in the Senate Tuesday and the head of the Senate Finance Committee promised he will combine it with a bill to sanction Russian human rights violators.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), who is the main sponsor of the PNTR bill and who will shepherd the legislation through his Finance Committee and then on the floor, has agreed to link it to the Magnitsky bill and pledged to pass them both this year. In doing so, Baucus secured the support of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for the PNTR bill, which includes a repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that was set in place to punish the Soviet Union for refuses to let Jews emigrate.
"It is clear the Magnitsky Act has overwhelming support in the Senate and growing support in the House," Baucus wrote in a letter today to McCain, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS). "It is equally clear that many of our colleagues are rallying around the position you have advanced -- that the repeal of Jackson-Vanik for Russia must be accompanied by passage of the Magnitsky Act. I am fully committed to ensuring that the Senate can act on both items this year."
After receiving that letter, McCain joined with Baucus, International Trade Subcommittee Ranking Member John Thune (R-SD), and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) in unveiling the PNTR legislation, which they said allows U.S. business to take full advantage of the Russian market when Russia officially joins the WTO later this summer.
"This is an opportunity to double our exports to Russia and create thousands of jobs across every sector of the U.S. economy, all at no cost to the U.S. whatsoever. We give up nothing as part of this process -- not one single tariff reduction -- so it's truly a one-sided benefit for the U.S.," Baucus said in a press release. "Jackson-Vanik served its purpose during the Cold War, but it's a relic of another era that now stands in the way of our farmers, ranchers and businesses pursuing opportunities to grow and create jobs... The clock is ticking for us to move, so we need to act now."
"As I and others have made clear, the extension of Permanent Normal Trade Relations status and the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Russia must be accompanied by passage of the Magnitsky Act," McCain said in the release. "I appreciate Senator Baucus's written commitment that he will work for Senate passage of both of these pieces of legislation as soon as possible this year. As we take steps to liberalize U.S. trade with Russia, as we should, we must also maintain our long-standing support for human rights and the fight against corruption in Russia."
The Obama administration has opposed the Magnitsky Act in public while working quietly with Cardin to make changes to the bill just in case its passage can't be avoided. The latest draft version of the bill, circulated by Cardin and obtained by The Cable, seeks to make it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill creates and adds ways for the administration to waive penalties against those violators.
By gaining McCain's support, Baucus has removed a major obstacle to the passage of PNTR for Russia. But now, with McCain on board, Baucus's PNTR bill is linked to the Magnitsky Act in such a way that if the administration opposes or seeks to water down the Magnitsky bill without McCain's agreement, both pieces of legislation could be in jeopardy.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved its own version, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, last week. The legislation is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago. But committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) doesn't support joining Magnitsky with the bill to grant PNTR status to Russia.
"Ros-Lehtinen considers PNTR separate from Magnistky and the issue of Russian human rights, and is opposed to linking Magnitsky to any effort to repeal Jackson-Vanik," her spokesperson Brad Goehner said.
A new issue has emerged in the confirmation of Brett McGurk to become the next ambassador to Iraq and it has nothing to do with the intimate e-mails he sent to a Wall Street Journal reporter in 2008.
One Republican senator is now making an issue out of McGurk's role in the case of Ali Musa Daqduq, the alleged Hezbollah commander who was transferred from U.S. to Iraqi custody last December and acquitted in an Iraqi court last month. He remains in Iraqi custody pending an automatically triggered appeal, but could be released thereafter.
The Daqduq issue is just the latest concern various Republican senators have raised over McGurk's nomination. Some GOP lawmakers want answers about his relationship in Iraq with reporter Gina Chon while he was negotiating the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement in 2008. The Wall Street Journal accepted Chon's resignation today. Others question McGurk's role in the failed negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq past 2011, and his overall qualifications for the job.
Daqduq, a Lebanese citizen whom U.S. military officials claim is a Hezbollah commander, was imprisoned by U.S. forces in Iraq and accused of leading a team that kidnapped and killed five U.S. soldiers in Iraq in January 2007. Last December, 21 U.S. senators wrote a letter urging the administration not to hand him over out of concern that the Iraqi government might release him.
On Monday, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) sent McGurk a series of questions demanding answers on the U.S. government's actions on the case as well as McGurk's personal involvement.
"How would you characterize your role in the transfer of Hezbollah terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq from U.S. to Iraqi custody?" reads the first question.
"Before the American withdrawal from Iraq last year, what steps, if any, did you take to stop the transfer of Hezbollah terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq from U.S. custody?" the next question reads.
Kirk asked McGurk if he will agree to provide Congress with copies of all State Department and National Security Council emails, letters, communications, telephone call readouts and readouts of meetings that mention Ali Musa Daqduq in all of 2011.
Kirk also wants to know what efforts are underway to get Daqduq back in U.S. custody, whether the U.S. government has formally requested his extradition, and whether McGurk would support the sale of military equipment to Iraq if the Iraqi government doesn't handover Daqduq.
Republican senators have also criticized McGurk for beginning his relationship with Chon, to whom he is now married, while he was simultaneously exchanging information with her regarding U.S. government activity.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) already cancelled a meeting with McGurk over that issue as well as over unconfirmed allegations that McGurk was caught on video engaging in improper sexual behavior on the roof of Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace in 2004.
Now, Sen. James Risch (R-ID), who praised McGurk in his confirmation hearing last week, is also expressing reservations about his confirmation.
"Prior to these email revelations, I had reservations about confirming Brett McGurk as ambassador to Iraq," Risch told The Cable through a spokesman. "Now that additional issues have been raised, more information will be needed and I reserve final judgment until all the facts are brought to light."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the first senator to raise concerns about the McGurk nomination, was apparently unswayed by last week's hearing. "His concerns regarding Mr. McGurk's time in Iraq, particularly related to his failure to negotiate a residual force as everyone envisioned, remain," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.
No senator can issue a formal hold on the McGurk nomination until the Senate Foreign Relations Committee votes to approve it, and no vote has been scheduled. But the concerns about McGurk's professional and private actions in Iraq are mounting and may reach a tipping point soon, Republican Senate aides say.
"Senator Kirk's questions touch on one of the most emotional issues involved in the McGurk nomination and several senators might have placed holds on McGurk for this reason alone," one senior GOP Senate aide said. "This, on top of McGurk's other problems, creates serious doubt as to the future of this nomination."
UPDATE: According to a State Department official, McGurk left Iraq on Oct. 22, 2011, was not involved in the negotiations with Iraq over the issue, and was serving as a senior advisor to the ambassador focused on other matters. "Simply put, Brett McGurk was not involved in the Daqduq issue in any way, shape, or form," the official said.
It's not every day you see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharing a stage with neocon Bush administration official Elliott Abrams and liberal Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), but they all joined together this morning to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the establishment of State's bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL).
"It is amazing to think how far DRL has come in 35 years," Clinton said, after being introduced by Assistant Secretary of State for DRL Michael Posner. "It did have a rocky childhood, plenty of critics at post and in this building who said we have no business pestering people about human rights, that it would only get in the way of real diplomacy."
When DRL got an office on the elite 7th floor of the State Department, there were "howls of protest," she said, but "no one questions the value of the human rights bureau anymore."
Clinton said that standing up for human rights gives the United States greater moral weight in the world and makes America more secure because countries that treat people with dignity are inherently more stable. She also alluded to the case of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to explain how human rights advocacy can cause diplomatic strife.
"Words do matter and when activists are harassed by their own governments, they turn to us for help. And I don't have to tell any of you what kinds of complications that can occasionally cause. But that's who we are and that's who we want to be," she said.
"Oh, to be 35 again," Clinton said with a sigh.
Abrams, who led the human rights bureau in the early days of the Reagan administration, talked about how the State Department wasn't active at all on human rights before the DRL bureau was formed.
"The last previous Republican view of human rights (before the Reagan administration) was Secretary [of State Henry] Kissinger in the Ford administration and Secretary Kissinger has never really understood human rights policy... to this day," he said. "So we had to create new policy and the argument we made was ‘opposing Communism is not enough.'"
McGovern, who leads the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, noted that the creation of the bureau was pushed on the State Department by Congress against its will.
"On occasion, Congress does some things right," he said. "I'll be honest with you, I want see a policy that reflects human rights even more than it does now. I think we can do better. We ought to stand out loud for human rights. This ought to be our priority."
He also revealed that there's still a lot of love inside the State Department for former Senator George McGovern, who received the Democratic primary presidential nomination in 1972, but whom Rep. McGovern is not related to.
"About a half a dozen people came up to me today and said ‘I've been a long time supporter of your father's," he said. "My father is Walter McGovern, not George McGovern, and he owns a liquor store in Worchester, Massachusetts.... If you've met him, please keep supporting him."
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
The nomination of Brett McGurk to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq is now facing increased opposition in the Senate due to allegations he had an affair with a reporter in Baghdad in 2008 while working as a top White House advisor and may have been videotaped while engaged in a sex act on the roof of Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace with a different woman.
McGurk, who served as a senior National Security Council official and the lead negotiator of the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement in 2008, allegedly held an extended affair with Gina Chon, a Wall Street Journal reporter, that began four years ago in Iraq, according to intimate and occasionally graphic e-mails exposed on the Cryptome website earlier this week. The Washington Free Beacon reported today that McGurk was married to another woman at the time and is married to Chon now.
The leaked e-mails, which could not be independently verified and were published on the Flikr site of an anonymous user named Diplojoke, show McGurk pursuing and then canoodling with Chon, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was also in Baghdad at the time.
McGurk and Chon did not respond to requests for comment. The State Department declined to comment.
Over in the Senate, one leading lawmaker is taking the allegations seriously. The Cable has confirmed that Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the second ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, cancelled a scheduled meeting with McGurk this week when he heard about the e-mails and an allegation that McGurk was caught on video engaged in a sex act on the roof of Baghdad's Republican Palace, as alluded to by State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren on his blog.
Inhofe's spokesman told The Cable that the senator won't proceed on the McGurk nomination until both allegations are cleared up.
"The senator always prefers to meet with nominees personally before giving his support. In regards to this nominee, Senator Inhofe has heard some concerning issues, and until those issues are cleared up, he will not meet with Mr. McGurk," Inhofe's spokesman Jared Young told The Cable.
Inhofe hasn't placed a formal hold on the McGurk nomination yet, but he is considering it.
Multiple sources told The Cable the State Department has investigated the allegation about McGurk's activity on top of the palace but was unable to find any evidence of that incident. It's unclear whether State is investigating the circumstances surrounding McGurk's affair with Chon.
Neither of these incidencts were mentioned at McGurk's confirmation hearing Wednesday. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee now must approve his nomination, but no vote has yet been scheduled.
Inhofe's objection would be only one of the several potential holds McGurk could face on his path to the nomination.
As The Cable reported in March, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) has reservations about McGurk taking on the Baghdad post over concerns that McGurk has never led an embassy and or any large organization and because McGurk was a key part of the failed SOFA negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq beyond 2011.
There are also concerns on Capitol Hill that McGurk may be too close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, impairing his ability to work with all segments of Iraq's political society. When he was nominated, Waheed Al Sammarraie, the D.C. representative of the office of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the leader of the opposition, wrote a letter to Congress that said, "I would like to inform you that Aliraqia Bloc and the liberal trend will not deal with new assigned ambassador to Iraq Mr. Brett Mcgurk for his loyalty and bounds with the Islamic party."
The House Foreign Affairs Committee marked up a bill today to punish Russian human rights violators, moving that bill closer to passage in conjunction with another bill to grant Russia privileged trade with the United States.
Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) convened her committee on Thursday morning to approve the House version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago. Her committee counterpart Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) said during the markup he supports joining the Magnitsky bill with a coming bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, which would include a repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, established to punish Russia for not allowing Jews to emigrate during the Soviet period.
"The entire world knows that the state of democracy and human rights in Russia, already bad, is getting worse," Ros-Lehtinen said at the markup. "Moscow devotes enormous resources and attention to persecuting political opponents and human rights activists, including forcibly breaking up rallies and jailing and beating those who dare to defy it. Instead of the rule of law, Russia is ruled by the lawless."
The Obama administration is publicly opposed to the Magnitsky bill, especially the effort to connect it to Jackson-Vanik repeal, and has been working behind the scenes with bill sponsors such as Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) to alter the legislation. "From our point of view this legislation is redundant to what we're already doing," U.S. Ambassador Russia Mike McFaul said in March.
One of the administration ideas is to expand the Magnitsky bill to deal with human rights violators from all countries, but doing so wouldn't eliminate strong Russian objections to the bill. A short amendment added to the House version today by Ros-Lehtinen makes clear that the bill is directed only at Russia.Cardin even came up with a new draft version of the legislation in April. The Cable obtained an internal document showing exactly what changed in the bill. For example, the new version makes it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill would create, potentially softening the bill's impact on Russian officials
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed consideration of the Magnitsky bill in April, so that the details inside the bill could be ironed out. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) has promised to take up the bill in that committee at their as yet unscheduled next business meeting. He has also said he supports joining the Magnitsky bill with legislation to repeal Jackson-Vanik.
In both chambers, the bill faces cross jurisdiction with the finance and possible judiciary committees, which means they would also have to approve the legislation, because it deals with financial sanctions and criminal prosecutions. The Senate Finance Committee under chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is where the Russian PNTR bill would begin as well, although it's not clear whether the PNTR bill, which would include the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, would be joined with the Magnitsky bill in committee or on the floor.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee also approved today a bill calling for the International Olympic Committee to hold a moment of silence at the 2012 London games to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic team members in Munich. The IOC has thus far refused requests to hold a moment of silence, saying that it is unnecessary and would establish an unwelcome precedent. That drive is being led by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Nita Lowey (D-NY), and Steve Israel (D-NY).
Another bill approved today by the HFAC would express "sense of the House of Representatives with respect toward the establishment of a democratic and prosperous Republic of Georgia and the establishment of a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict with Georgia's internationally recognized borders."
The committee also approved a resolution expressing support for efforts to combat the Lord's Resistance Army and secure the imprisonment of Joseph Kony, a bill calling upon the Turkey to reopen the Ecumenical Patriarchate's theological school at Halks, and the "Donald M. Payne International Food Assistance Act of 2012," which is mean to improve the quality and effectiveness of U.S. food assistance programs abroad.
Kris Connor/Getty Images
Singapore - Security in the South China Sea, tensions in North Korea, and the changing nature of Asian security will top the agenda this weekend at the Shangri-la Security Dialogue, the largest annual gathering of Asian and Pacific defense officials and experts in the world.
Your humble Cable guy is already on the ground as the top delegations from 28 countries, including 16 defense ministers, convene on the island city-state this weekend for the 12th annual iteration of the conference, run by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) out of London. Last year's event was packed with news, as when then Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled a new U.S. plan to increase the U.S. military commitment to Southeast Asia.
Gates met with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie at last year's event and Liang fought off verbal attacks from several regional powers on China's aggressive activities in the maritime domain. He even answered several questions posed by The Cable. Although the United States and China tried to portray an image of improving U.S.-China military ties, last year's event highlighted the deep disparity between the two country's visions for the region.
This year, the United States is sending a large, high-level delegation led by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Mark Lippert.
There will also be a hefty U.S. congressional delegation here in Singapore, including Senate Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D-Samoa), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Panetta, who is also traveling to Vietnam and India on the trip, will focus his speech in Singapore on the U.S. military shift toward Asia. He previewed those remarks in a May 29 speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.
"America is a maritime nation, and we are returning to our maritime roots," Panetta said. "America's future prosperity and security are tied to our ability to advance peace and security along the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia. That reality is inescapable for our country and for our military, which has already begun broadening and deepening our engagement throughout the Asia-Pacific."
Panetta will travel to China for the first time as Defense Secretary later this year. For Washington, the conference is a chance to drive home its commitment to Asian security, said John Chipman, director-general and chief executive of IISS. For China, the conference is an opportunity to defend its actions and intentions toward its neighbors.
"This year the U.S. will reaffirm its rebalancing to Asia, what they earlier called the ‘pivot' to Asia that they are now calling ‘the rebalancing,'" Chipman said. "China has had a challenging year with the region, which is simultaneously attracted and intimidated by Chinese power."
In a change from last year, China won't be sending an official at the defense-minister level. Sources familiar with the discussions said that due to the sensitive nature of China's impending leadership transition, the Chinese government is being unusually cautious about its public interactions.
That will shift some of the attention to the other regional powers, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and Malaysia. For example, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will give the opening keynote address. Thai defense minister Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwanatat will attend for the first time, as will the defense minister of Myanmar, Lt. Gen. Hla Min. Indian defense minister A K Antony will deliver another one of the keynote speeches.
"We know what the U.S. and China think. It will be interesting to see how the medium powers seek to frame the discussion," Chipman said. "Indonesia sees itself now not just as a leading country in Southeast Asia but as a G-20 power. It wants to play a larger role in defining the security agenda in the region."
As with many of these conferences, much of the real action will take place on the sidelines -- in a series of bilateral, small group, and off the record meetings that will occur alongside the official festivities. This year there will be an off-the-record session on tensions in the South China Sea in which Chinese and Filipino officials will participate.
Other special sessions will cover the role of armed forces in international emergencies, the evolution of submarine warfare, cyberwarfare, and the emergence of new military systems such as unmanned vehicles.
The United States, Japan, and South Korea will use the opportunity of the conference to hold a trilateral side meeting, where the North Korea nuclear issue is expected to be discussed. Indonesia, Australia, and India will hold another small multilateral meeting, possibly including Japan.
There will be more than 200 bilateral meetings in Singapore as well, in addition to the dozen or so small multilateral gatherings. That's the whole idea of bringing these officials to Singapore for three days, Chipman said.
"Almost all the defense ministers refer to it as ‘the indispensable forum' for defense discussions," he said. "It really allows for a larger variety of discussions that no other forum in Asia -- official or unofficial -- permits."
We'll be blogging and tweeting (@joshrogin) the entire time. Watch this space.
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. government considers the descendants of Palestinian refugees to be refugees, a State Department official told The Cable, and another top State Department official wrote in a letter to Congress that there are now 5 million Palestinian refugees.
The two new policy statements come in the midst of a fight over whether the United States will start separating, at least on paper, Palestinians who fled what is now Israel in 1948 and 1967 from their descendants.
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved unanimously an amendment to the fiscal 2013 State Department and foreign operations appropriations bill that requires the State Department to report on how many of the 5 million Palestinians currently receiving assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) are actually people who were physically displaced from their homes in Israel or the occupied territories, and how many are merely descendants of original refugees.
The amendment, as passed, was watered down by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) from a version proposed by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) that would have required more in-depth reporting on how many UNRWA aid recipients are now living in the West Bank, Gaza, and other countries such as Jordan. An even earlier version of the bill would have made it U.S. policy that Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, and those who are citizens of countries like Jordan are not, in fact, "refugees."
The State Department objected strongly to the Kirk amendment, claiming that any U.S. determination of the number or status of refugees was unhelpful and destabilizing and that refugee determinations are a final-status issue that must be negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
"This proposed amendment would be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides wrote Thursday in a letter to Leahy. "United States policy has been consistent for decades, in both Republican and Democratic administrations -- final status issues can and must only be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations. The Department of State cannot support legislation which would force the United States to make a public judgment on the number and status of Palestinian refugees."
"This action would damage confidence between the parties at a particularly fragile time, undercut our ability to act as a mediator and peace facilitator, and generate very strong negative reaction from the Palestinians and our allies in the region, particularly Jordan," Nides wrote.
But later down in the letter, Nides states, "UNRWA provides essential services for approximately five million refugees, including education for over 485,000 school children, primary health care in 138 clinics, and social services for the most Vulnerable, particularly in Lebanon and Gaza." (Emphasis added.)
To experts and congressional officials following the issue, that declaration was remarkable because it was the first time the State Department had placed a number -- 5 million -- on the number of Palestinian refugees.
"The Nides letter could be considered a change in U.S. policy with consideration to refugees because it states clearly that 5 million people served by UNRWA are refugees," one senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable. "For the Obama administration to stake out a position emphatically endorsing the rights of 5 million Palestinian refugees is by itself prejudging the outcome of final- status issues."
Steve Rosen, a long time senior AIPAC official who now is the Washington director of the Middle East Forum, said that by calling all 5 million UNRWA aid recipients "refugees," the State Department is saying that all the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and the nearly 2 million who are citizens of Jordan have some claim to the "right of return" to Israel, even though Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all stated clearly that a two-state solution would mean that the bulk of the 5 million Palestinian "refugees" would end up living in the West Bank or Gaza, not Israel.
President Barack Obama said in June 2011, "A lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people." In January, 2008, while a presidential candidate, Obama said, "The right of return [to Israel] is something that is not an option in a literal sense."
At the heart of the issue is what constitutes a "refugee." The entire thrust of the Kirk amendment was to challenge UNRWA's definition, which includes the descendants of refugees -- children, grandchildren, and so on. That has resulted in the number of Palestinian "refugees" skyrocketing from 750,000 in 1950 to the 5 million figure quoted by Nides today.
An analysis by the academic journal Refugee Survey Quarterly projected that if that definition remains intact, there will be 11 million Palestinian refugees by 2040 and 20 million by 2060.
In a new statement given to The Cable Thursday, a State Department spokesman said that the U.S. government does, in fact, agree with UNRWA that descendants of refugees are also refugees.
"Both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) generally recognize descendants of refugees as refugees," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told The Cable. "For purposes of their operations, the U.S. government supports this guiding principle. This approach is not unique to the Palestinian context."
Ventrell pointed out that the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees also recognizes descendants of refugees as refugees in several cases, including but not limited to the Burmese refugee population in Thailand, the Bhutanese refugee population in Nepal, the Afghan population in Pakistan, and the Somali population seeking refuge in neighboring countries.
UNHCR by default only considers the minor children of refugees to have refugee status but often makes exceptions to include latter generations. Regardless, the State Department's new statement could have wide-ranging implications.
"How many generations does it go?" asked Rosen. "I'm Jewish, and as a grandchild of several refugees, could I make a claim on all these countries? Where does it end? Someday all life on Earth will be a Palestinian refugee."
The Cable asked the State Department whether descendants of refugees get refugee status for endless generations and whether Nides's mention of the 5 million Palestinian refugees was an intentional shift in U.S. policy, but we haven't gotten a response.
The State Department statements also appear to conflict with the United States Law on Derivative Refugee Status, which allows spouses and children of refugees to apply for derivative status as refugees, but specifically declares that grandchildren are ineligible for derivative refugee status. In other words, U.S. law doesn't permit descendants of refugees to get refugee status inside the United States.
Some regional experts see Kirk's amendment as a ploy to cut some of the $250 million in U.S. funding for UNRWA and bolster Israel's position by negating rights of Palestinians that would otherwise be determined in negotiations.
Leila Hilal, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, told The Cable that to honestly determine which Palestinians remain refugees, one would have to wade into a long, complicated legal and factual analysis about which Palestinians in the region have adequate national protection that would end their refugee status.
"The rights of return and property restitution do not depend on refugee status," she said. "Ultimately, however, this congressional move is a political stunt intended to preempt final-status outcomes -- and a rather cheap one at that."
UPDATE: A State Department official confirms that yes, the descendants of refugees are still refugees for numerous generations until they return home or are resettled in a third country. The official also argued that Nides' reference to UNRWA serving 5 million "refugees" was also accurate.
"The number of people on UNRWA's rolls isn't and shouldn't be a secret," the official said. "The Kirk amendment, based on commentary surrounding it, is meant to set a stage for the U.S. to intervene now with the determination that 2nd and 3rd generation descendants have no claims and in fact aren't even Palestinians. Our interest is to avoid that. We are not predetermining numbers that the parties themselves must ultimately agree on. Nor can UNWRA."
In a rare moment of bipartisan unity in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans joined together to admonish Pakistan for its treatment of the doctor who helped the United States find Osama bin Laden.
At a Senate Appropriations Committee markup this morning, senior senators from both sides of the aisle took turns accusing Pakistan of supporting terrorism, undermining the war in Afghanistan, extorting the U.S. taxpayer, and punishing Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to find Bin Laden and was sentenced this week to 33 years in jail for treason. One senior senator predicted the Pakistani government was about to fall.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the heads of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, co-sponsored an amendment to the fiscal 2013 foreign affairs funding bill that would withhold $33 million in foreign military aid to Pakistan -- one year for each year of Afridi's sentence. That amendment came on top of new restrictions in the bill that would withhold all counterinsurgency aid to Pakistan if Islamabad doesn't reopen trucking routes for supplies for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But senators' frustration with Pakistan was not limited to recent events; they piled on with criticism of Pakistan's government, military, and intelligence services' actions throughout the war in Afghanistan. All agreed that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as currently arranged was dysfunctional and undermining U.S. national security interests.
Graham started by pointing out that the Senate is proposing reductions in next year's emergency funding for Pakistan by 58 percent from the president's request.
"When it comes to Pakistan, every member of this committee is challenged to go home and answer the question, ‘Why are we helping Pakistan?'" he said. "We can't trust Pakistan, but we can't abandon them."
"If we don't get those truck routes open so we can serve our troops in Afghanistan, we're going to stop the funding ... I do not expect Americans to sit on the sideline and watch the negotiations turn into extortion," said Graham.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) launched into a widespread criticism of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), the country's premier spy agency.
"I have long believed that Pakistan, especially the ISI, walks both sides of the street when it comes to terror," she said, noting that most leaders of the Taliban and the Haqqani network are assessed to be living in Pakistan. She also spoke about the Afridi case.
"He was not and is not a spy for our country. This was not a crime against Pakistan. It was an effort and locate and help bring to justice the world's No. 1 terrorist," she said. "This conviction says to be that al Qaeda is viewed by the court to be Pakistan ... I don't know which side of the war Pakistan is on."
Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) went next and said Feinstein's sentiments about Afridi were shared by many in the Senate. He was followed by Leahy, who said he was "outraged" about the Afridi case and said Pakistan public statements criticizing terrorism don't match its actions.
"It is Alice in Wonderland, at best, but it is outrageous in itself. If this is cooperation, I would hate like heck to see opposition," Leahy said.
"Pakistan is a schizophrenic at best ally," Graham said as he introduced the amendment to cut funding over the Afridi situation. "They are helping the Haqqani network ... which is basically a mob trying to take over parts of Afghanistan. And the ISI constantly provides assistance in Quetta on the Pakistani side of the border."
"The situation with the doctor is a classic example of not understanding the world the way it is," Graham said. "We need Pakistan, but we don't need a Pakistan that cannot see the justice in bringing bin Laden to an end."
Graham then took a shot at Pakistan's civilian government, which is often at odds with the military and the intelligence agencies.
"This government is about to fall. They are not serving their own people," Graham said.
Feinstein did chime in at the end of the debate with praise for Pakistan's new ambassador to Washington, Sherry Rehman.
"To me this is a very sad day. I have met the new Pakistani ambassador," Feinstein said. "She is a brilliant woman, she speaks fluent English, she has had a distinguished career.... This is just very hard to reconcile."
The amendment passed unanimously 30-0.
China's record on human rights deteriorated as the Chinese government engaged in widespread and expanding severe repression of its own people and ethnic minorities in 2011, the State Department said in a new report released today.
"Deterioration in key aspects of the country's human rights situation continued. Repression and coercion, particularly against organizations and individuals involved in rights advocacy and public interest issues, were routine," reads the State Department's new Human Rights Report on China.
"Individuals and groups seen as politically sensitive by the authorities continued to face tight restrictions on their freedom to assemble, practice religion, and travel. Efforts to silence political activists and public interest lawyers were stepped up, and, increasingly, authorities resorted to extralegal measures including enforced disappearance, ‘soft detention,' and strict house arrest, including house arrest of family members, to prevent the public voicing of independent opinions," the report stated.
The Chinese government harassed public interest law firms, increased attempts to limit freedom of speech and control the Internet, and continued "severe cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Tibetan areas," the State Department determined.
The report listed dozens of ways the Chinese government represses its people, including: extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearance; "black jails"; torture and coerced confessions of prisoners; detention and harassment of lawyers, journalists, writers, dissidents, and petitioners; restrictions on freedom to assemble, practice religion, and travel; failure to protect refugees and asylum seekers; a coercive birth limitation policy that in some cases resulted in forced abortion or forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; and the use of forced labor, including prison labor.
"Corruption remained widespread," the report said.
The report also dings the Chinese government for its failure to account for the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.
"At year's end the government had not provided a comprehensive, credible accounting of all those killed, missing, or detained in connection with the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations," the report said.
More than 40,000 people have been admitted to 22 psychiatric hospitals for the criminally insane in China run by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and those patients have no means to contest their status as mentally ill, according to the report.
"Patients in these hospitals reportedly were medicated against their will and forcibly subjected to electric shock treatment," the State Department said.
As for criminal trials in China, "There was no presumption of innocence, and the criminal justice system was biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high-profile or politically sensitive cases," the report explained. "According to statistics released on the Supreme People's Court (SPC) official Web site, in 2010 the combined conviction rate for first- and second-instance criminal trials was 99.9 percent."
Of more than 1 million criminal defendants tried in 2010, less than 1,000 were acquitted.
Tibet and Tibetan populated areas of China found themselves under "under increasingly intense and formalized systems of controls, many of which appeared to be aimed at facilitating enforcement of ‘social stability' and undermining the religious authority of the Dalai Lama," the report said.
"There was severe repression of the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and movement. Authorities continued to commit serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial detentions, and house arrests. The preservation and development of Tibet's unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage and unique high plateau environment remained a concern," it said.
The congressional drive to update a 1948 law on how the U.S. government manages its public diplomacy has kicked off a heated debate over whether Congress is about to allow the State Department to propagandize Americans. But the actual impact of the change is less sinister than it might seem.
On May 18, Buzzfeed published a story by reporter Michael Hastings about the bipartisan congressional effort to change the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 (as amended by the Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987). The story was entitled, "Congressmen seek to lift propaganda ban," and focuses on the successful effort by Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA) to add their Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 as an amendment to the House version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
The new legislation would "authorize the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences." The Buzzfeed article outlines concerns inside the defense community that the Pentagon might now be allowed to use information operations and propaganda operations against U.S. citizens. A correction added to the story notes that Smith-Mundt doesn't apply to the Pentagon in the first place.
In fact, the Smith-Mundt act (as amended in 1987) only covers the select parts of the State Department that are engaged in public diplomacy efforts abroad, such as the public diplomacy section of the "R" bureau, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the body that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other U.S. government-funded media organizations.
Implementation of the law over the years has been selective, haphazard, and at times confusing, because even State Department bureaus often aren't sure if they have to abide by it. The Thornberry-Smith language is meant to fix that by applying Smith-Mundt to the entire State Department and USAID.
The Defense Department, meanwhile, has its own "no propaganda" rider, enshrined in the part of U.S. code that covers the Pentagon, and that is not affected in any way by either Smith-Mundt as it stands or by the proposed update now found in the defense bill. The only reason the Smith-Mundt modernization bill was attached to the defense bill was because that bill is one that's sure to move and Congress hasn't actually passed a foreign affairs authorization bill in years.
"To me, it's a fascinating case study in how one blogger was pretty sloppy, not understanding the issue and then it got picked up by Politico's Playbook, and you had one level of sloppiness on top of another. And once something sensational gets out there, it just spreads like wildfire," Thornberry told The Cable in an interview today.
He said the update for Smith-Mundt was intended to recognize that U.S. public diplomacy needs to compete on the Internet and through satellite channels and therefore the law preventing this information from being available to U.S. citizens was simply obsolete.
"It should be completely obvious that a law first passed in 1948 might need to be updated to reflect a world of the Internet and satellite [TV]," he said. "If you want the State Department to engage on the war of ideas, it has to do it over the Internet and satellite channels, which don't have geographical borders."
Salon writer Glenn Greenwald interviewed Smith Tuesday and wrote a story questioning whether the law would allow the State Department to try to influence American public opinion though "propaganda." He noted a press release on the Thornberry-Smith legislation which complained that Smith-Mundt had prevented a Minneapolis radio station from replaying VOA broadcasts to Somali-Americans to rebut terrorist propaganda.
Thornberry's response was to say that the 21st century media environment is already so diverse and open that opening Americans' access to one more source of information, State Department-produced news and information, was not likely to propagandize American citizens.
"It makes me chuckle. This is not 1948 when everybody was tuned to a few radio stations and the fear was that the information we were sending to Eastern Bloc countries was going to affect American politics," he said. "The idea that the State Department could be so effective as to impact domestic politics is just silly. This gives Americans the chance to see what the State Department is saying to people all over the world."
In fact, advocates of the bill tout the issue of transparency and oversight of U.S. public diplomacy as one of the main benefits of the new bill. Previously, oversight of State Department public diplomacy efforts abroad was done by an advisory commission inside the State Department that was shut down last year, while Congress and the media has little to no direct access to the material.
Thornberry said that domestic dissemination of the material will actually increase the transparency and oversight of U.S. public diplomacy by laying it bare for Americans to chew over.
"If all these bloggers see the State Department trying to influence something domestically, they will be the first to raise the alarm," he said. "It is always going to be true that you have to look at the effectiveness and truthfulness of the content of the information. But it would no longer be against the law that the American people can see it."
Matt Armstrong, who was the executive director of the State Department's advisory commission on public diplomacy before it got shut down because Congress declined to reauthorize it, explained on his Mountainrunner blog that Smith-Mundt was designed by a Cold War U.S. government that simply didn't trust the State Department to talk directly to the American people.
"The Smith-Mundt Act is misunderstood and often mistaken for ‘anti-propaganda' legislation intended to censor the Government. The reality is the original prohibition on the State Department disseminating inside the U.S. its own information products designed for audiences abroad was, first, to protect the Government from the State Department and, second, to protect commercial media," he wrote.
In an interview today, Armstrong pointed out that the Thornberry-Smith bill explicitly notes that two existing provisions of Smith-Mundt, both of which would remain intact, address concerns that the State Department might overreach in trying to influence Americans. Section 1437 of the existing legislation requires the State Department to defer to private media whenever possible and Section 1462 requires State to withdraw from a government information activity whenever a private media source is found as an adequate replacement.
He said the law as it stands is just not working and doesn't make a lot of sense. "When Cal Ripkin or Michele Kwan go to China, Americans aren't supposed to know that they went or what they did there. In addition, virtually anything that's on a U.S. embassy website is off limits," he said.
The discussion over Smith-Mundt is further distorted by a lack of understanding about what public diplomacy is and when it crosses over into "propaganda."
"Let's face it, it is impossible to communicate and not influence.. The idea here is that U.S. public diplomacy is not based on lies," said Armstrong. "There's this misconception that public diplomacy is propaganda. Propaganda is a lie, a deception, or intentional ambiguity, none of which can be lead to effective public diplomacy by any country, let alone the U.S."
Of course, the State Department's Public Affairs bureaucracy, which speaks to Americans every day in various forms, is capable of "propaganda," but is not covered by Smith-Mundt. The Cable asked State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at today's press briefing if State supported the Thornberry-Smith legislation.
"We have long thought that aspects of Smith-Mundt need to be modernized, that in a 24-7 Internet age it's hard to draw hard lines like the original Smith-Mundt [Act] did in the ‘40s," she said.
We then asked Nuland whether the State Department has any intent to propagandize American citizens.
"We do not and never have," she said with a smile.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors lost another governor today when S. Enders Wimbush told the board he was leaving his post and the organization.
"As you all know, I recently assumed a new position with the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Over the past few months, given the demands of that position and an increasingly heavy travel schedule, I have not been able to devote the time and attention to my BBG role that I would like," Wimbush wrote in his resignation letter to the board.
From 1987-93, Wimbush served as director of Radio Liberty in Munich, Germany.
As one of the four Republicans on the nine-member board, Wimbush will be replaced by a new board member chosen principally by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). President Barack Obama formally appoints McConnell's choices for the GOP seats and the president chooses the nominees for the four Democrat seats himself.
All board members must be confirmed by the Senate except for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who serves on the board ex-officio and is represented there by Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine.
"We extend our deepest thanks to Enders Wimbush for all he has done, not only during nearly two years with the Board, but through many years -- including his leadership at RFE/RL during the collapse of communism and the demise of the Soviet Union," BBG Presiding Governor Michael Lynton said in a statement. "Enders has brought quality, erudition and distinction to the mission of U.S. international media; what's more, he put his heart and soul into it."
Lynton is the de-facto chairman of the board because the most recent chairman, Aspen Institute head Walter Isaacson, resigned in February to devote more time to his next book. We're told by administration sources that the White House is close to announcing Isaacson's replacement.
Of the six remaining board members, besides Clinton, four are already operating past the expiration of their terms. Lynton and former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino will see their terms expire this August. While it's not unusual for board members to extend their terms, technically they are supposed to be formally re-nominated by the White House. Lags in this process have been prevalent for years, however.
Inside the BBG, knowledgeable sources tell The Cable that the Wimbush resignation comes after a long period of enmity between Wimbush and another GOP board member, former Ambassador to Poland Victor Ash. Wimbush did not respond to a request for comment.
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker will leave his post due to health concerns, the State Department confirmed today.
"Today, Ambassador Ryan Crocker confirmed to the Afghan Government, U.S. Mission Afghanistan, and the ISAF community that he intends to depart his post for health reasons in mid-summer, following the Kabul and Tokyo conferences," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "Ambassador Crocker's tenure has been marked by enormous achievements: the Bonn Conference, the conclusion of the Strategic Partnership Agreement, and the two Memoranda of Understanding on detentions and special operations, and the Chicago NATO Summit."
The Tokyo conference on Afghanistan is scheduled to take place in July.
Crocker came out of retirement in January 2011 to take up the Kabul envoy post. From 2009 until 2011 he was dean of the George Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. Previously, he was the top U.S. official in Kabul following the fall of the Taliban and reopened the U.S. Embassy there in 2003.
Two State Department officials also confirmed to The Cable that Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman will step down soon to become the U.N.'s under secretary for political affairs, replacing Lynn Pascoe. That was first reported in March by the U.N. blog Inner City Press, and was reported again by Reuters Monday.
At the U.N., Feltman will be in charge of coordinating that body's response to crises in the Middle East, among other places. There is no word on Feltman's replacement, but we're told by an administration source that State is considering bringing in someone to temporarily fill in for Feltman in the assistant secretary role.
On the eve of a fresh round of nuclear talks with Iran, the Senate on Monday passed by unanimous consent a bill imposing harsh new sanctions on Iran, sending it to a conference with the House, where the debate will move behind closed doors.
The legislation, the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, would punish any entity that provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment -- as well as communications jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the Obama administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed new assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation, named for Senate Banking Committee heads Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), would formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.
The passage of the legislation in the Senate comes one day before international negotiators meet in Baghdad for another round of discussions with Iran over its nuclear program. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) tried to move the bill through the Senate late last week, but Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) objected, arguing that the GOP hadn't had enough time to review Reid's manager's amendment, a claim Reid's office denies.
Kyl was objecting on behalf of several GOP senators who wanted the bill to explicitly mention that military options were on the table to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Kyl's demand last week to include such language was new, a response to Reid's decision to add language explicitly stating that nothing in the bill authorized U.S. military action in Iran. Reid added the new text to appease Sen. Ron Paul (R-TX), who objected to unanimous consent on the bill in March.
Here's the new language Reid added to the bill Monday:
"It is the sense of Congress that the goal of compelling Iran to abandon efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and other threatening activities can be effectively achieved through a comprehensive policy that includes economic sanctions, diplomacy, and military planning, capabilities and options, and that this objective is consistent with the one stated by President Barack Obama in the 2012 State of the Union Address: ‘Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.'"
With the addition of that language, Kyl lifted his objection.
As noted in the Washington Post's Right Turn blog, the House version of the Johnson-Shelby bill, passed in December, contains neither the language Reid added for Paul nor the language Reid added for Kyl, and has several other provisions not found in the Senate bill. The conference over the bill hasn't been scheduled and will occur in secret, per traditional congressional practice.
The conferees have not yet been named.
The most contentious part of the conference could be how to deal with a series of punitive measures proposed by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) in his own amendment to the Johnson-Shelby bill, parts of which Reid added to the Senate bill in a non-binding form.
Kirk's allies in the House have introduced separate bills containing the Kirk sanctions, which expand sanctions to include all Iranian banks and larger swaths of other Iranian corporate sectors and those bills are likely to be brought into the House-Senate conference over the Johnson-Shelby bill.
In April, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), joined with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) to introduce the Iran Financial Sanctions Improvement Act, which contains many of the sanctions measures that Kirk proposed. Other measures found in the Kirk amendment were included by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Robert Dold (R-FL) in a bill they introduced in March called the Iranian Energy Sector and Proliferation Sanctions Act.
In a statement late Monday, Kirk praised the passage of the Johnson-Shelby bill and indicated that Reid had made some commitment to strengthen the bill inside the secret conference.
"Today the U.S. Senate put Iranian leaders on notice that they must halt all uranium enrichment activities or face another round of economic sanctions from the United States," Kirk said. "I thank Leader McConnell and Senator Menendez for their support in moving this important legislation forward, and I appreciate Leader Reid and Chairman Johnson's commitment to negotiate even tougher sanctions in conference."
Neither Kirk nor Reid has explained the details of that commitment or responded to questions about it today. The administration has taken no position on the bill or on the Kirk amendment to date.
The biggest single new initiative in the State Department's $51.6 billion budget proposal for next year was a Middle East Incentive Fund -- $770 million in mostly new money to help State respond to the Arab Spring by supporting emerging democracies and their civil societies. But the House of Representatives declined to fund it in their version of the appropriations bill.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee for State and Foreign Ops didn't give any money to fund the initiative in their fiscal 2013 appropriations mark, released last month. The leaders of that subcommittee claim that State failed to give them enough detail about the program to justify the new outlay of funds. Now, the State Department is depending on its allies in the Senate to save the program when the Senate Appropriations Committee marks up its bill next week. The episode is an example of the disconnect between State and Congress over how to respond to the Arab Spring as well as the difficulty of securing new money for diplomatic initiatives in this tight budget environment.
"This is something that Secretary Clinton has really -- and with the President -- has focused principally on," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides said in February when announcing the initiative. "The notion is we're in a new world. The Arab Spring has come; we need to make sure we have the tools and the flexibility in which to fund these initiatives. I cannot tell you today where that money will be spent because we'll be, obviously, in consultation with the Hill. We'll be coming up with initiatives that we'll then be discussing with the Hill."
"But this is something we coordinated and talked a lot about with our friends on the Hill, the idea is to have some flexibility to support everything from Tunisia, to support areas like potentially in Egypt and in areas where things are changing every day in Syria, things where changing, the world is evolving as we see it, and we felt it was important to have a pool of money," he said.
At the time, budget experts warned that it would be difficult for the State Department to get Congress to spring for the program because State didn't seem to have a lot of detail about what the money would be used for.
"That will be controversial because there's no content. It's a contingency fund and Congress doesn't like to give State contingency funds," said former Office of Management and Budget National Security Director Gordon Adams at the time.
State did brief all the relevant committees on the new fund and provided as much detail and context as they could, but it wasn't enough for the House subcommittee leaders, Reps. Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY).
"The administration could not justify the broad authority requested to override existing laws. However, the House bill does provide State some flexible funding to be responsive, within the existing account structure, while increasing congressional oversight on key countries," Granger's spokesman Matt Leffingwell told The Cable.
The "existing account structure" he referred to is the economic support funds that are given each year on a country-by-country basis. Congress prefers granting State country-specific aid because it's easier to track and oversee.
"Congresswoman Lowey supports U.S. engagement in the region and believes we must have the flexibility to respond to rapid changes and developments. Existing accounts within the bill provide that important flexibility," Lowey's spokesman Matt Dennis told The Cable.
Outside experts working closely on the issue said that the State Department didn't properly explain the new fund or its benefits to Congress and didn't have specific enough proposals to give lawmakers assurance the money would be spent wisely.
"This incentive fund is an important new initiative, but unfortunately it seems the administration has done a pretty poor job of pitching it to the hill. There's a lot of confusion in Congress about what this fund is for and why it's important," said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.
"This fund should be a signature initiative of the administration to respond to the historic events in the region, and these funds could be essential to the administration's ability to respond to events that haven't yet unfolded in places like Syria, where there is no existing U.S. assistance package in the budget," said McInerney.
Using economic support funds is not a great option because those funds are already devoted to specific causes and diverting them from other places would hurt other priorities, McInerney argued.
"The administration won't be able to use that flexibility without significant cuts to existing programs. Without some support from Congress, it's really tough to get it off the ground," he said.
Tamara Wittes, head of the Brookings Institute's Saban Center on the Middle East, pointed out that within the $770 million State requested for the new fund, it included a $65 million annual request for an existing program called the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is how State has been funding civil society development in the region. So now, MEPI's funding is also at risk.
"Congress may not realize that MEPI funding was embedded in this proposal, but they need to be aware of the impact of their decision on America's ability to partner with citizens in the region who are working for positive change," she said. Wittes was head of the MEPI office and deputy director of State's new Middle East Transitions Office before she left government earlier this year.
The new Middle East Incentive Fund is State's way of trying to shift America's aid approach in the region from the military-dominated focus of the recent decades to an approach focused on the promotion of civil society and political reform, said Wittes.
"We have to look at the overall ratio of our assistance and how that is seen by the people of the region. In order to seize the opportunity that the Arab Spring presents, we need to shift the logic of our relationships to one that emphasizes projects with people," she said.
The fight to save the fund now goes to the Senate, where the Senate Appropriations Committee is set to mark up its State and Foreign Ops bill as early as next week. David Carle, the spokesman for State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), told The Cable, "Sen. Leahy does intend to include some amount for the fund, for the reasons the administration requested it -- to provide flexibility to respond to changing events in the ME and NA regions."
The Senate subcommittee hasn't decided how much of the request to support. Their version of the bill could be conferenced with the House version. More likely, Congress will not complete any appropriations bills this year and the two versions will simply inform a temporary funding measure crafted by congressional leadership in late September.
The new fund does have one powerful staunch supporter in Congress, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA).
"This is something that's been percolating a long time on the Hill and in the administration and it's really a no-brainer," Kerry told The Cable in a statement. "We're witnessing a period of historic change in the Middle East, and it's impossible to predict what will happen next month, let alone next year, which is why the State Department should have the flexibility to deal with unforeseen contingencies. Positive incentives for economic and democratic reforms also make sense. American assistance in itself may not convince governments that are resisting reform to change, but in places that have already begun to chart a new course, like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, it can help empower moderates and reformers."
The State Department declined to comment.
UPDATE: A reader points out that the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee's report on the bill does direct $70 million to MEPI, separate from the Middle East Incentive Fund.
Syrian government forces continue to attack opposition forces, civilians, and aid volunteers, preventing the international community from getting emergency aid to the Syrian people, USAID has detailed in a series of internal reports obtained by The Cable.
In its latest "humanitarian update," written at the end of April, USAID reported in detail the extensive attacks perpetrated by Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) troops, despite an ongoing U.N. monitoring mission and in direct violation of the "cease-fire" there. The USAID report, marked "sensitive but unclassified," sourced its findings to U.N. representatives in Syria as well as representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), and other aid groups on the ground.
"U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan expressed concerns regarding reports of SARG reprisal attacks in areas where Syrian civilians met with U.N. observers, including in Hamah and Damascus governorates," the report stated. "The observers report that SARG forces have not withdrawn heavy weapons from urban centers -- a condition of the U.N. and Arab League supported ceasefire and peace plan that went into effect on April 12."
Although the U.N. Security Council has authorized the deployment of 300 monitors, the report could only confirm that "at least 11" U.N. monitors had arrived in Syria as of April 24. (Additional monitors have reportedly arrived since then.)
Meanwhile, USAID reported that government forces attacked an SARC vehicle April 24 that was evacuating wounded civilians in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, killing one aid volunteer and injuring three. Twenty-six aid workers were trapped in an SARC building following the attack and the SARC had to negotiate a temporary ceasefire between opposition and government forces to get them out, USAID reported.
Following a request from SARC, USAID contractors have suspended the deployment of mobile medical units that were providing health-care services in and around Damascus, the report said.
"In addition to emergency medical needs resulting from ongoing violence, a USAID/OFDA partner report increasing constraints on the availability of medications for chronic diseases, which are prohibitively expensive for Syrians without financial assistance," the report stated. "In addition, the U.N. World Health Organization representatives have expressed concern about the health of displaced Syrians in Jordan."
A USAID contractor is working to train Syrian doctors in Jordan so they can return to Syria and provide life saving medical care there, and a USAID contractor has procured 10,000 kg of medical supplies for use in Syria and is trying to get those supplies into the country, according to the report.
In an April 26 press briefing, USAD Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Christa Capozzola criticized the Syrian regime for not allowing emergency aid supplies to reach the Syrian people and called for more help.
"While some aid is reaching people in need through the Red Crescent, other U.N. agencies, and other international organizations, current humanitarian access restrictions remain a significant challenge to the aid effort," she said. "After months of working under these conditions, the aid organizations working in Syria are extremely stretched. To continue alleviating suffering and saving lives, they need more support and capacity from the international community.
The U.S. government has spent $39.4 million on assistance for Syria in fiscal 2012, the report stated. The report noted that only $33 million of this assistance has been publicly reported before now.
Overall, the USAID report concluded that there had been at least 9,000 civilian deaths in Syria as of March 27, according to U.N. figures, although the current number is likely higher. There are between 300,000 and 500,000 internally displaced Syrians, according to the report, 610,000 estimated refuges inside Syria, and approximately 66,000 Syrian refuges who have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.
The USAID report was marked sensitive but unclassified (SBU).
U.S. Agency for International Development
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