President Barack Obama issued a determination Friday that there are enough sources of oil around the world to allow all Iran's customers to stop buying its crude.
The decision was required by a section of the latest defense authorization bill, which included new sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran and any other country that does business with Iran. Countries can be exempted from those sanctions if they "significantly reduce" their oil business with Iran, and the president was required to decide if the world oil market could absorb that demand before the sanctions could be fully implemented.
"[A]fter carefully considering the report submitted to the Congress by the Energy Information Administration on February 29, 2012, and other relevant information, and given current global economic conditions, increased production by certain countries, the level of spare capacity, and the existence of strategic reserves, among other factors, I determine, pursuant to section 1245(d)(4)(B) and (C) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, Pub1ic Law 112-81, that there is a sufficient supply of petroleum and petroleum products from countries other than Iran to permit a significant reduction in the volume of petroleum andpetroleum products purchased from Iran by or through foreign financial institutions," Obama wrote in a Friday memorandum.
"I will closely monitor this situation to assure that the market can continue to accommodate a reduction in purchases of petroleum and petroleum products from Iran."
The State Department exempted 11 countries from the Central Bank sanctions earlier this month and has until June 28 to decide whether to sanction the other 12 countries that buy crude oil from Iran, a list that includes China, India, South Korea, and Turkey. This determination allows that process to continue moving forward.
Today's determination was not a surprise. A Feb. 29 report from the Energy Information Agency stated that Saudi Arabia was pumping more oil than usual but also found that spare capacity in the oil market was modest by historical standards. Energy Secretary Steven Chu seemed to preview the determination March 1 when he said, "There is spare capacity and we believe -- we'll see -- but I think there is sufficient spare capacity."
In a conference call with reporters Friday afternoon, two senior administration officials touted the administration's effort to use the sanctions to persuade other countries to wean themselves off of Iranian oil and said the administration expected South Korea to move away from Iranian oil purchases soon and Turkey announced related moves today.
"It's our belief that these sanctions are having a significant impact on the Iranian government and the Iranian economy and that therefore they present the strongest pressure we've placed to date to effect Iran's political calculus about pursuit of nuclear program, particularly as we move toward P5+1 negotiations," one senior administration official said.
The official neglected to mention that the administration publicly opposed the legislation that created the sanctions, written by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), which was added to the defense authorization bill over administration objections and passed by the Senate by a vote of 100-0.
In a statement Friday, Menendez praised Obama's determination.
"Today, we put on notice all nations that continue to import petroleum or petroleum products from Iran that they have 3 months to significantly reduce those purchases or risk the imposition of sanctions on their financial institutions," Menendez said. "It is my opinion that most countries will significantly reduce their purchases by the June 28 deadline -- either because of the sanctions or because they share the U.S., EU, and IAEA's grave concerns about Iran's verified effort to acquire nuclear weapons capability."
The Cable asked the officials whether they supported the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) tried to speed through the Senate this week without any debate or amendments.
"We're not just taking a position on that particular bill at this point," the official said.
We then asked whether the administration had a position on the right of senators to offer amendments to the Johnson-Shelby bill, in light of Reid's position that there is simply no time to offer amendments to the legislation.
"We've not made any specific determinations with regard to that amendment," the official said.
We didn't ask about any specific amendment, but it's possible the official was referring to a new amendment from the office of Kirk, which would expand sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to include all Iranian banks and would threaten sanctions on any international firms that facilitate those banks' transactions, including the EU-based international transactions facilitator SWIFT and Clearstream, a firm that works with SWIFT to process worldwide money exchanges. Swift announced it would stop processing transactions with Iran's Central Bank earlier this month.
Kirk's new amendment would also target the Iranian insurance industry, expand sanctions against the Iranian energy sector, target Iran's high-tech and telecommunications sectors, and try to narrow the conditions under which the administration can exempt third countries who are still buying oil from Iran from existing sanctions.
"We welcome the president's determination and applaud the administration's faithful implementation of the Menendez-Kirk amendment," a Kirk spokesperson told The Cable. "To build on this momentum, we hope the Senate will consider amendments to the pending Iran sanctions bill that would continue to increase the economic pressure on the Iranian regime."
Just before heading out of town, the Senate confirmed dozens of Obama administration appointments, including a host of ambassadors and several top officials at Foggy Bottom.
Among the newly confirmed appointees are Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne Claire Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Frederick Barton, and Director General of the Foreign Service Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
The Senate also confirmed new U.S. ambassadors to the Togolese Republic, Barbados, Cambodia, Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Haiti, India, Kosovo, Latvia, Libya, Malta, Nicaragua, Panama, Tunisia, and Uruguay.
Other notable administration officials confirmed include Rebecca Blank as deputy secretary of commerce, Mary John Miller as undersecretary of the Treasury, Alastair Fitzpayne as deputy undersecretary of the Treasury, Elizabeth Cousens as U.S. representative on the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, and Earl Gast as assistant administrator of USAID for Africa.
The Senate also passed by unanimous consent a group of foreign policy-related resolutions, including a resolution expressing support for the people of Tibet, a resolution condemning violence by the government of Syria against journalists, a resolution expressing the sense of the Senate in support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the NATO summit to be held in Chicago, and a resolution promoting peace and stability in Sudan.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) came out strongly this week for a bill to sanction Russian human rights violators and urged his committee counterpart John Kerry (D-MA) to stop stalling action on the bill.
At the March 27 SFRC business meeting, Lugar read aloud a long statement in support of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago. Several senators, now including Lugar, have said publicly that unless the Magnitsky bill can become law, they will oppose the repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that currently stands as the only U.S. law specifically aimed at holding the Russian government accountable for its human rights record.
Without repeal of Jackson-Vanik, the United States can't grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and U.S. businesses can't take full advantage of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization. But the senators believe that the Magnitsky bill is needed to ensure the Russian government is not let off the hook for its deteriorating record on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
"Mr. Chairman, several committee members have urged committee consideration of the Magnitsky Rule of Law Act. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Senator [Ben] Cardin (D-MD) for his hard work on the Magnitsky Act. This bill has been pending before the Foreign Relations Committee for nearly a year, and we held a hearing on the bill last December. My office has worked with Senator Cardin's staff to develop a revised version of the bill, which I strongly support. Therefore, I would look forward to the opportunity for the committee to consider this legislation at the next business meeting," Lugar said.
The next SFRC business meeting should be in mid-April. If the committee approves the bill, which is likely, it would then be sent to the Senate floor. Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee is working on a bill to grant Russia PNTR status and repeal Jackson-Vanik. Finance committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MO) traveled to Russia last month on the issue and a finance committee staff delegation leaves for Russia March 31.
If both bills are reported out of their respective committees successfully, supporters of the Magnitsky Act would then advocate for the two bills to be joined together or voted on in rapid succession, so that they would be sent to the president's desk as a package.
The administration opposes the Magnitsky bill and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul recently called it "redundant" because the State Department has already issued visa restrictions for the officials it believes are guilty in the Magnitsky case. But leading Russian opposition figures argue that the repeal of Jackson-Vanik without some replacement human rights legislation would undermine the fight for human rights in Russia.
Behind the scenes, the administration is negotiating with Cardin, the bill's main sponsor, on changes to the Magnitsky bill that would actually expand it to cover all countries around the globe, not just Russia, two congressional aides close to the issue told The Cable.
The benefit of such a change for the administration would be that the bill could not be seen as targeting Russia only. The risk, according to aides, is that such a change could create conflicts with several other governments whose officials might falls under the bill's definition of human rights violators.
Publicly, McFaul has called for Jackson-Vanik to be replaced by a new democracy fund for Russia. He has said the administration requested to use leftover money -- about $150 million -- from an expired Russia enterprise fund to set up the new democracy initiative.
According to several congressional aides, that request is being held up by two Republican offices, Lugar's and the office of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Lugar supports the democracy fund, although not exactly as the administration envisions it. Ros-Lehtinen wants the money to be returned to the U.S. Treasury.
Either way, supporters of the Magnitsky bill on Capitol Hill aren't keen on the idea and want to wait and see whether their drive to join the Magnitsky bill to the PNTR bill can succeed.
"Momentum is building for Magnitsky and people aren't really interested in setting up something new," a senior GOP Senate aide said. "We want to see where Magnitsky goes."
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul got a little freaked out this week by the fact that reporters in Moscow are mysteriously turning up everywhere he goes. Today, he learned that the Russian government has been alerting reporters as to his whereabouts on a constant basis.
"Everywhere I go NTV is there. Wonder who gives them my calendar? They wouldn't tell me. Wonder what the laws are here for such things?" McFaul tweeted Thursday.
Unsure how the Russia press, which has been severely critical of McFaul, has been able to follow him so closely, he initially concluded they were spying on his personal communications.
"Welceom (sic) to my life. Press has right to film me anywhere. But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?" McFaul tweeted. "I respect press right to go anywhere & ask any question. But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?"
McFaul said that when he asked the "reporters" showing up at his meetings how they knew where he was, they wouldn't tell him.
Later Thursday, journalist Jace Foster tweeted back to McFaul to clue him in on how the Russian reporters always knew where to find him.
"Your schedule is fair game. We know it because Russian consulate watches you & releases your schedule," she tweeted. "Russia watches your Twitter account too, which is open to the public. Surely you know this."
McFaul seemed relieved to hear that Russian journalists are not tapping his phones. But he emphasized that the U.S. government does not tip off reporters in Washington about the travels of his Russian counterpart.
"I am new to the world of diplomacy and did not [know] this fact. Thanks. I know we do not do the same with Russian ambo in U.S.," McFaul tweeted. "Maybe I should start publishing my schedule? I am always happy to interact with press."
"Ambassador, if you feel it would help & make your life more secure, then perhaps posting when you are publicly available would help," Foster tweeted back.
The United States has halted plans to provide food aid to North Korea after North Korea promised to launch a missile into outer space next month, although the Obama administration maintains there is no "linkage" between the two issues.
Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific security affairs, testified Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee that after North Korea announced it would use a long-range missile to launch a satellite into space, violating the missile moratorium it agreed to last Leap Day, the United States decided not to send the 240,000 tons of food there it had promised in that very deal. But the Obama administration is not using food as leverage, Lavoy insisted. The administration simply can't trust the North Koreans to honor their commitments now, even when it comes to ensuring that the food is delivered to its intended recipients.
"The North Koreans have announced that they will launch a missile. We are working very closely with allies and other partners in the region to try to discourage North Korea from launching this missile as they've intended. But we believe that this reflects their lack of desire to follow through on their international commitments," Lavoy testified. "And so we have been forced to suspend our activities to provide nutritional assistance to North Korea largely because we have now no confidence that the monitoring mechanisms that ensure that the food assistance goes to the starving people and not the regime elite, that these monitoring mechanisms we have no confidence that they would actually abide by the understandings."
Some lawmakers were skeptical that the administration was not punishing the North Koreans for their upcoming missile launch by withholding the food aid, but Lavoy insisted the two issues were not linked, even though they were announced in the same Feb. 29 statement and negotiated at the same time with the same officials.
"We don't believe that nutritional assistance should be a lever to achieve a political outcome. It is a humanitarian effort that we have intended. And again, it's regrettable that this has stopped," Lavoy said. "So the reason, again, why we're not providing that food assistance at this point is because our confidence in their ability to meet their agreements has been diminished. We do not use it as a lever to change their policies."
State Department Spokeswomand Victoria Nuland also said Wednesday that the issues aren't linked, but she implied that the food aid could be restored if the missile launch is scuttled.
"We don't have confidence in their good faith. If they want to restore our confidence in their good faith, they can cancel the plans to launch this satellite," she said. "They are separate issues, but they come together at the point of whether the government's acting in good faith."
During the talks that led up the Feb. 29 statement, the U.S. side made clear to the North Koreans that any missile launch, even a satellite launch, would be a deal breaker, Lavoy said.
Lavoy also warned that the North Korean leadership might do something else provocative on or around the April 15 celebration on the 100th birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, perhaps as a way for new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to establish his power and legitimacy.
"Our suspicions about North Korea using its celebrations this year to enhance its missile program were confirmed when North Korea announced on March 16th that it plans to conduct a missile launch between April 12th and 16th," Lavoy said.
Lavoy also said that the North Koreans intend to launch the missile in a southward direction, although nobody knows where the missile or its debris might land.
"A number of countries are potentially affected. The debris on fall on their countries. It could cause casualties. This affects South Korea, of course, but also Japan, Okinawa, the island of Japan, and the intended impact is probably somewhere close to the Philippines or maybe Indonesia," he said.
HASC Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) said the upcoming missile launch was further evidence that the North Koreans never had any intention in engaging in real denuclearization talks and that the regime's stance has not changed since the death of Kim Jong Il.
"This is typical behavior shown by the regime, a cycle of provocations and reconciliations designed to get what they want without giving up their nuclear weapons program," McKeon said. "It's becoming clear that the same aggressive, reckless cycle will continue under the new North Korean dictator. Although the Chinese and Russian governments publicly expressed concern about the planned missile launch, they have been unable or unwilling to bring their North Korea ally back to the negotiation table."
Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner (R-OH) pressed Lavoy on President Barack Obama's hot mic comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvdev in Seoul, in which Obama asked Medvdev to ask Vladimir Putin to give him "space" on the missile defense issue until after the November election.
"Are you aware of the deal the president has with Medvedev and with Russia that would be revealed to us after the election that perhaps isn't secret to you that would limit our missile-defense capability, either in deployment use or scope, that, of course, is a serious -- you know, a serious concern to this committee as we look to the rise of North Korea?" Turner asked. "Are you aware of the subject matter of the president's missile-defense deal, secret or not, with the Russians? And if you're not, why are you not?
"No, sir, I am not," Lavoy responded. "And I can assure you that we do believe that missile defense and our phased-adaptive approach to missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region is very much alive. It's very much part of our comprehensive approach to deal with the threat posed by the North Koreans. And it's something we're committed to."
"OK. I would greatly appreciate it if you would ask the president what are the details of his deal with the Russians concerning missile defense that cannot be disclosed until after the election," Turner replied.
President Barack Obama on Monday nominated Brett McGurk to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq. But members of the Iraqi and American opposition parties are already criticizing the choice.
In announcing McGurk's nomination, the White House noted that he has served as a senior advisor to the last three U.S. ambassadors to Iraq: Jim Jeffrey, Ryan Crocker, and Christopher Hill, and that he served on the National Security Council, initially as director for Iraq and later as senior director for Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior to 2005, he was a legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.
What the White House didn't mention is that McGurk was the lead negotiator for the 2008 U.S.-Iraq security agreement that extended the U.S. troop presence there until the end of 2011 and he led the failed negotiations in 2011 to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq even longer.
McGurk's perceived closeness to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during those two sets of negotiations is both an asset and a detriment as his nomination moves forward. The Washington office of the main Iraqi opposition bloc, Al Iraqiya, penned a letter to all members of Congress Monday stating that its members would have nothing to do with McGurk if he is confirmed as the U.S. envoy to Baghdad.
"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," wrote Waheed Al Sammarraie, the D.C. representiative of the office of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the leader of the opposition.
Later Tuesday, Allawi's office sent out another note saying their original message contained "many typos" and they would send out a more official note Wednesday.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers who were frustrated by the failure of the Obama administration to negotiate a follow-on security agreement for American troop presence with the Maliki government are also criticizing the McGurk nomination.
"I will have very significant questions about his qualifications and his positions on the issues... He's not my choice," Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable.
McCain said he won't formally decide on whether to hold up McGurk's nomination until he has a chance to hear from the nominee. But he focused on the fact that although McGurk was deeply involved in negotiating a follow on force in Iraq, today he says he agrees with the administration that no follow-on force is necessary.
"Now he thinks it was a fine idea that we do not have a residual force there. That's not my view," McCain said.
McGurk testified before McCain's committee last November and said that while he did try to negotiate a follow-on agreement to keep some American troops in Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi lawyers determined it could not work unless the Iraqi parliament passed a law giving those troops immunity from Iraqi courts, which wasn't possible politically in Iraq.
"Against this backdrop, the best available policy for the United States was to fulfill the commitment under the  security agreement and elevate the [Strategic Framework Agreement] as the pillar of our long term relationship. Having just returned from Baghdad, I am confident that this policy -- if handled right -- can open a new window of opportunity for relations with Iraq, including close security and defense relations," McGurk testified.
Ramzy Mardini, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told The Cable today the objections to McGurk's nomination are based both on his perceived closeness to Maliki and on the fact that he has no experience running an embassy, much less the largest U.S. embassy in the world.
"Many Iraqi players outside Maliki's circle view McGurk as an advocate for the prime minister. That may not be a fair characterization, but the perceptions are there on the ground. There's the possibility that this sentiment could undermine our perception of neutrality and therefore our ability to effectively mediate disputes between all Iraqi factions," he said.
"It's our largest embassy and it's placed in a hostile environment, where thousands of Iraqis are killed each year in what is still an ongoing insurgency. Some would argue that the ideal candidate for chief of mission would be someone from the Foreign Service who has already run an embassy in the Arab world, understands Iraq and its political culture, and speaks the Arabic language."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is trying to pass a new Iran sanctions bill through the Senate without any amendments or debate in a legislative move many see as designed to prevent both Republicans and Democrats from adding even more sanctions to the legislation.
Reid announced on the Senate floor Tuesday morning that he wanted to bring up the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, a new set of sanctions that would punish anyone who provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment -- as well as jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the Obama administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed related 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.
But here's the rub: Reid wants to bring up the bill for passage by unanimous consent, meaning there would be no debate and no amendments offered. The bill could be passed by a simple voice vote if nobody objects, but Reid said the Republicans won't let it happen.
"I'm going to ask consent soon to moving forward on this unanimously reported bill out the Banking Committee. Unfortunately, I have been told that my Republican colleagues will object to moving forward with these new sanctions because they want to offer additional amendments," Reid said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.
"I have Democrats who want to offer additional amendments also, but we don't have the time to slow down passage of this legislation," he added. "When we put this away, we're not going to be finished with Iran. ... But in an effort to get sanctions in place now, Democrats have agreed to streamline the process and refrain from offering their amendments. We can't afford to slow down the process."
Senate aides from both parties told The Cable that Reid's office is working behind the scenes to prevent more amendments that would strengthen the sanctions in ways the administration and Reid are resisting. The Cable has obtained the text and a detailed summary of one lengthy amendment that would add several new punitive measures to the bill.
The amendment isn't signed but it appears to come from the office of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) because it contains expanded sanctions against all Iranian banks that matches legislation Kirk had already been working on. An aide to Kirk declined to comment on the amendment.
The summary of the proposed amendment includes a direct rebuttal to Reid's argument that the Johnson-Shelby bill should be passed quickly and that there will be plenty of other chances to sanction Iran after that.
"As Iran continues inching closer to ‘red lines' surrounding its illicit nuclear weapons program, S. 2101 will likely serve as the last legislative vehicle to impose further economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic until December," the summary reads. "Therefore, as long as opportunities exist to incorporate new ideas and creative sanctions into the legislation, we should seize upon those opportunities in overwhelming bipartisan fashion. In this way, we keep our promise to the American people and support the President's stated objective to exhaust every available diplomatic option."
The proposed amendment would expand sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to include all Iranian banks and would threaten sanctions on any international firms that facilitate those banks' transactions, including the EU-based international transactions facilitator SWIFT and Clearstream, a firm that works with SWIFT to process worldwide money exchanges. Swift has already taken some actions to cut off Iran's Central Bank.
The amendment would also target the Iranian insurance industry, expand sanctions against the Iranian energy sector, target Iran's high-tech and telecommunications sectors, and try to narrow the conditions under which the administration can exempt third countries who are still buying oil from Iran from existing sanctions. The State Department exempted 11 countries from Iran sanctions last week and has yet to make a determination on 12 others.
There are plenty of other potential amendments out there as well. For example, a bill ruling out containment of a nuclear Iran led by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Bob Casey (D-PA), could also become an amendment.
By calling for unanimous consent on the Johnson-Shelby bill today, Reid is trying to portray the GOP as objecting to quick passage of Iran sanctions. It's likely that after he files for unanimous consent today and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) objects, the two will retreat behind closed doors and negotiate a compromise way forward. A similar dynamic played out over the last round of sanctions when Kirk and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) wanted to sanction the Iranian Central Bank over the administration's objections.
"Sooner or later -- and most likely it will be sooner -- both sides are going to sit down together and figure out a way forward that everyone can live with -- reflecting the overwhelming bipartisan consensus that exists in support of additional Iran sanctions," one senior Senate aide told The Cable.
"Hopefully calm will prevail on all sides after today and the Majority Leader will authorize Chairman Johnson to negotiate with key Democrats and Republicans on the contents of a manager's amendment that includes everyone's best ideas," another senior Senate aide said. "In the end, the president says the window of diplomacy is shrinking and we owe it to the American people to consider every available non-military option."
UPDATE: In a short interview, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) said he does want to offer an amendment to the Johnson-Shelby bill and does not want to see it go through the senate via unanimous consent.
"Senator Graham and I are the lead sponsors of a bipartisan resolution that says containment is not an acceptable policy against Iran. With regard to the bill coming out of the banking committee, we're having a discussion with Sen. Reid about when to take it up and how many amendments to allow," Lieberman said.
"We are a little bit concerned. I'd really prefer to have a bipartisan agreement with a limited number of amendments on both sides. I think that's Sen. McConnell's position. So I'm going to talk to Sen. Reid and try to work that out."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said this afternoon that Republicans will continue to object to moving forward on the bill until Kirk's amendment gets a hearing.
"I just wanted to say that Senator Kirk is doing a lot of homework but he's not here, would like to add an amendment -- a change to the proposal and therefore, would hope that we could work out something with the leader so that we could accommodate Senator Kirk's desire in that regard," Kyl said.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) filed the formal objection to unanimous consent on the Johnson-Shelby bill, due to his desire to be able to offer an amendment of his own.
The State Department now has more than 150 employees working full time on "ediplomacy," the use of the Internet to achieve policy goals, as well as at least 900 part-time ediplomats, according to a new study.
"The US State Department has become the world's leading user of ediplomacy," states the new report put out by Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy, highlighting a range of initiatives that Foggy Bottom has included in its "21st Century Statecraft" Initiative.
"In some areas ediplomacy is changing the way State does business. In Public Diplomacy, State now operates what is effectively a global media empire, reaching a larger direct audience than the paid circulation of the ten largest US dailies and employing an army of diplomat-journalists to feed its 600-plus platforms," the report, entitled "Revolution @State: The Spread of Ediplomacy," states. "In other areas, like Knowledge Management, ediplomacy is finding solutions to problems that have plagued foreign ministries for centuries."
In addition to public diplomacy and knowledge management, new technology is being used by the State Department around the world for information management, consular communications, disaster response, the promotion of internet freedom, and even policy planning.
For example, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, the Mexican Embassy in Washington, the Mexican Affairs Office at State, and the Mexican Foreign Ministry all collaborate on disaster management using cloud-based tools, a mechanism that has been used in the cross-border region. In another example, the Haitian-American population was mobilized to help translate Twitter messages during the Haitian earthquake.
Not all experts are thrilled about the State Department's ediplomacy. Evgeny Morozov wrote in a recent edition of FP that the State Department's internet freedom efforts and other technological gambits have not produced significant results.
"A year later, however, the Internet Freedom Agenda can boast of precious few real accomplishments; if anything... Clinton's effort has certainly generated plenty of positive headlines and gimmicky online competitions, but not much else," he wrote. "Elsewhere, the State Department's enthusiasm for technology has surpassed its understanding of it."
The Lowy Institute report credits Secretary of States Hillary Clinton's Senior Adviser for Innovation Alec Ross and Policy Advisor for Innovation Ben Scott, "who have helped embed ediplomacy at State, driven an external and internal ediplomacy promotion campaign and helped conceive of specific ediplomacy initiatives."
Read the whole thing here.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has decided to use a national security waiver to allow over $1.5 billion of U.S. aid to Egypt, bypassing Congressional restrictions even while the Egyptian government's assault on NGOs in Cairo continues.
The State Department hadn't planned to announce the waiver decision today. "We're still expecting a decision this week, but she hasn't made it yet," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Thursday's press briefing. But apparently Clinton had decided, because Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the author of the restrictions, got a call from the State Department today notifying him of the waiver. In a statement Thursday afternoon, he announced the waiver and criticized Clinton's choice.
"I am disappointed by this decision. I know Secretary Clinton wants the democratic transition in Egypt to succeed, but by waiving the conditions we send a contradictory message," Leahy said. "The Egyptian military should be defending fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, not harassing and arresting those who are working for democracy. They should end trials of civilians in military courts and fully repeal the Emergency Law, and our policy should not equivocate on these key reforms."
Leahy's office has been urging Clinton not to use the waiver authority that Leahy himself added to the most recent appropriations bill. Now that the waiver has been exercised, Leahy is arguing that, just because the restrictions on the aid have been removed, that doesn't mean the U.S. government necessarily has to deliver the aid -- at least not all of it up front.
"Now that Secretary Clinton has decided to use the law's waiver authority, she should use the flexibility the law provides and release no more taxpayer funds than is demonstrably necessary, withholding the rest in the Treasury pending further progress in the transition to democracy," said Leahy.
We were told by multiple Congressional sources that the State Department is considering delaying part of the $1.3 billion of military aid and most of the $250 million in economic aid, at least for a while. The Pentagon has been urging Clinton to release some of the military aid because existing contracts with U.S. defense firms were dependent on the funds, multiple Congressional aides said.
Leahy's House counterpart, House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX), also came out against Clinton's decision to waive the restrictions today and said that she had been told it was in fact a partial waiver.
"I am disappointed by the timing of the Secretary's decision to issue a partial waiver of restrictions on FMF funds for Egypt while the Egyptian government's transition is ongoing," Granger said in a statement to The Cable. "The State Department needs to make the case that waiving the conditions is in the national security interest of the United States. I expect the Secretary to follow the law and consult the Appropriations Committee before any funds are transferred."
Critics of providing further military aid to the Cairo government have raised concerns over the actions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which allegedly played a role in the December raids on several NGOs in Cairo, including three funded by the United States: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House.
A number of Americans who worked for NGOs in Egypt were temporarily banned from leaving the country and charged with crimes, but they were eventually allowed to depart earlier this month. Prosecutions against both the foreign workers and the local staffs of the NGOs continue.
The non-military aid is under particular scrutiny because it would be given largely to the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation, which is run by Fayza Abul Naga, the official who is suspected to have played a lead role in the raids and the prosecutions.
"The decision to waive the conditions, partially or in full, on military aid sends the wrong message to the Egyptian government -- that U.S. taxpayers will subsidize the Egyptian military while it continues to oversee the crackdown on civil society and to commit human rights abuses," said David Kramer, president of Freedom House. "A resumption of military aid at this point also sends the wrong message to the Egyptian people -- that we care only about American NGO workers, not about the aspirations of the Egyptian people to build democracy."
Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, agreed with that assessment. The announcement of the waiver, he said, was "extremely disappointing, particularly as Egyptian and American organizations working to support Egypt's transition to democracy remain very much under threat."
The restrictions in the bill were conditioned on Clinton certifying that the Egyptian military is making progress on the transition to democracy, and that the Egyptian government is allowing freedom of expression and assembly. McInerney said the United States can still hold Egypt accountable for those promises.
"I very much hope, as Senator Leahy has expressed, that the administration will still elect to delay the disbursement of the majority of the fiscal year 2012 funds to Egypt's military until further progress in Egypt's transition to democratic civilian rule has been achieved," he said.
Not all senior lawmakers and officials connected with the issue are so eager to cut off U.S. funding to the Egyptian government. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of IRI, has been deeply involved in the issue and traveled to Egypt in the midst of the crisis.
He told The Cable in an interview that the aid served as a valuable form of influence that the United States must use carefully.
"We've got to weigh all the aspects of this issue, it's very complicated and complex. We want to be on the same page as the administration," he said. "In general, I think its two steps forward and one step back in Egypt. But there's also the overall issue of the delicate political situation in Egypt today."
Senate Foreign Relations Middle East Subcommittee Chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) told The Cable that the issue wasn't black and white, and that there should be a way to provide some aid while still keeping the pressure on Egypt to continue reforms.
"We've got to have a measure of accountability. But I think the idea of cutting off aid doesn't make sense," Casey said. "We just have to figure out a better way to make the aid conditional based on those measures of accountability, and I think we can achieve that. I think, in this case, it's a mistake to take an either/or approach."
UPDATE: Read Nuland's full Friday statement on the waivers after the jump:
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
It's not every day that groups supporting a State Department-listed foreign terrorist organization hold a party in the U.S. Congress, but that's exactly what happened today when the friends of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK) threw their Nowruz party in the hearing room of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Members of Congress will join Iranian Americans in wishing the Iranian people a Happy Nowrouz and address the humanitarian rights of Iran's main opposition in Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty, in Iraq," reads the flyer for the party, which was held Thursday at the Rayburn building in room 2172, where the foreign affairs committee holds all of its public events.
The flyer says that the event is sponsored by "Iranian American communities" from around the United States, but the mention of Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty is a clear reference to the MEK, a group designated by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization that has about 3,000 members living in the secretive Ashraf compound in Iraq.
The U.N. and the State Department are working to move them to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport, but the MEK is resisting that move, and has enlisted its many supporters in the United States to decry the conditions at the former military base. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani even went so far as to call Camp Liberty a "concentration camp."
House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) spoke at the event and discussed human rights in Iran, but did not mention the MEK by name. Former Homeland Security secretary and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, a paid advocate of the MEK, also spoke.
"The event was not sponsored by the MEK," Ros-Lehtinen's spokesperson Brad Goehner told The Cable. "The room was requested by the Iranian-American Society of South Florida and sponsored by the Iranian-American communities of 39 cities for an event commemorating the Iranian New Year. Space in Congressional office buildings is routinely made available to organizations wishing to hold events on issues important to members of Congress."
The flyer doesn't say the party is being thrown by or for the MEK, and aides who attended told The Cable that there were no MEK signs or banners at the event, as one usually sees wherever the MEK is camped out.
That could be a result of the revelation that the Treasury Department's counterterrorism unit has issued a subpoena to former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell for records related to his paid advocacy of the MEK, as part of an investigation into the web of organizations that support the terrorist group.
There is a long list of Iranian-American organizations that fund pro-MEK events and pay speakers fees to MEK supporters. Many of these organizations - such as the "Global Initiative for Democracy, whose homepage is entirely devoted to the MEK's concerns and who hosted an MEK conference in January -- seem to have no other function other than to advocate for the MEK, and the actual sources of their money is unclear.
Receiving funding from a terrorist organization or even providing it with "material support," which could include advocacy, is a crime.
The campaign by the MEK's supporters to disparage Camp Liberty and lobby for the MEK's removal from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations has included huge rallies outside the State Department, massive sit-ins at Congressional hearings, and an ongoing vigil outside the State Department's C Street entrance.
Those supporters, many of them paid, include Giuliani, Rendell, Vermont Governor Howard Dean, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. John Lewis (D-GA), former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, and former Sen. Evan Bayh.
Congressional aides attended the event on Thursday in the hearing room both out of curiosity and hunger for free food. But multiple aides told The Cable the event was bizarre, even by Congressional standards.
"Looks like you just have to be the ‘right' terrorist organization to hold a fancy party in the halls and hearing rooms of Congress," one House aide told The Cable. "Hope everyone who ate their kabobs doesn't get hit with material support subpoenas."
President Barack Obama is off to South Korea this weekend to attend the second biannual Nuclear Security Summit, which seeks to build on the event he hosted in Washington in April 2010.
"This trip I think intersects with two of the president's leading national security priorities," Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes said Tuesday. "The first is the focus he has put on nuclear security along with non-proliferation since the beginning of his time in office. And the second is, of course, our increased focus on the Asia Pacific as a region of great importance to the United States."
Rhodes called South Korea "one of our strongest allies in the world and, of course, the cornerstone of our approach to Asia" -- a characterization the Japanese might not be thrilled about, but consistent with Obama's recent declaration that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is one of his world leader best buddies.
Obama will arrive in Seoul on March 25, and his first activity will be to visit the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. After that, he will have a bilateral meeting with another one of his buddies, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where the two will discuss Iran, Syria, and the broader upheaval in the Arab world. Following that meeting, Obama will meet with Lee, hold a press conference, and then attend a dinner with the South Korean leader.
On the morning of March 26, Obama will give a speech at Hankuk University. He is expected to discuss the drive to secure loose nuclear material around the world and to halt nuclear proliferation, the importance of peaceful nuclear energy, and the strength of the U.S.-South Korean relationship, said Rhodes.
Following that speech, Obama will hold a series of bilateral meetings, beginning with his last official meeting with soon-to-be former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev -- who Obama does not consider a buddy, even though they went to Ray's Hellburger together during Medvedev's visit to Washington.
Obama will then meet with President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and President Hu Jintao of China before attending a working dinner related to the summit. The Syria crisis will be on the agenda of Obama's meeting with both Medvedev and Hu, according to Rhodes.
The summit will take place on March 27. Gary Samore, the president's WMD czar and the U.S. sherpa for the summit, said that several countries made commitments in regards to the securing of nuclear material at the 2010 Washington summit and were making good on those promises.
"We think the Seoul summit will provide an opportunity for us to harvest many of those commitments. In the two years since the Washington meeting, governments have been very effective in carrying out commitments they made in Washington two years ago," Samore said, placing the rate of commitments fulfilled at 80 percent.
Several countries will be making new commitments in Seoul, and there will be an added theme this time around of combating nuclear smuggling, Samore said.
NSC Senior Director for Asia Daniel Russel said that the personal relationship between Obama and Lee was stronger than ever. This will be Obama's third trip to South Korea as president, and Lee has visited Washington twice. "I think that the two leaders have forged an unprecedentedly close relationship," he said.
Of course, it's impossible to have a nuclear conference on the Korean Peninsula without the subject of North Korea's nuclear program coming up, especially as North Korea plans to launch a long-range missile next month in direct violation of the agreement it struck with the United States last month.
"Clearly, in Korea, in his bilateral meetings with world leaders, the president will discuss this," said Russel. "But the situation that they face isn't fundamentally different than what the president and the other leaders have been dealing with in terms of North Korean behavior all along. It is precisely because of the North Korean penchant for backtracking that we and our partners have insisted on them taking irreversible steps and do not reward promises. The North Korean tactics haven't paid off for them in three years, and we hope that they choose to make the right decision."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
The State Department announced on Tuesday that it would exempt 10 European countries and Japan from penalties for doing business with Iran's central bank, because those countries are making significant progress toward weaning themselves off of Iranian oil.
"I am pleased to announce that an initial group of eleven countries has significantly reduced their volume of crude oil purchases from Iran -- Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom. As a result, I will report to the Congress that sanctions pursuant to Section 1245 of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 (NDAA) will not apply to the financial institutions based in these countries, for a renewable period of 180 days," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a Tuesday statement. "The actions taken by these countries were not easy. They had to rethink their energy needs at a critical time for the world economy and quickly begin to find alternatives to Iranian oil, which many had been reliant on for their energy needs."
The European Union banned all new purchases of Iranian crude oil as of Jan. 23 and will phase out existing contracts by July 1, Clinton said. Japan was able to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil even despite energy shortages created by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
"We commend these countries for their actions and urge other nations that import oil from Iran to follow their example," said Clinton. "Diplomacy coupled with strong pressure can achieve the long-term solutions we seek and we will continue to work with our international partners to increase the pressure on Iran to meet its international obligations."
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who co-authored the sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and those who do business with it, praised the State Department's move in a Tuesday statement of his own.
"The sanctions are working," he said. "Countries and companies are stepping up in recognition of the real threat that Iran poses to its neighbors and the global community and are terminating business relationships with Iran. On Saturday, SWIFT - the financial messaging service provider - cut off services to the Central Bank of Iran and 30 designated Iranian banks, and as a result -- for the first time -- we are seeing a real impact on the Iranian economy."
A senior State Department official said Tuesday that there are 12 countries left who import Iranian oil and could be sanctioned but didn't get exemptions today. Butthe official said that if those countries are going to be sanctioned, it won't be for a while.
Since the CBI sanctions didn't actually go into effect until Feb. 29, any case for implementing sanctions against those 12 countries would have to be based on evidence from that date forward, which would take time.
On March 30, President Barack Obama will have to make a determination as to whether price and supply conditions in the energy market allow for countries to switch from Iranian crude oil to other suppliers. If he determines they do, then a new set of harsher sanctions would go into effect on June 28 against any countries that don't have exemptions by then.
The main countries that the United States might be forced to sanction at that time include China, Turkey, India, and South Korea, none of which received exemptions today. The State Department official admitted that the conditions for receiving an exemption are vague.
"On the case of the other countries, the legislation specifies ‘significantly reduce.' It doesn't define what ‘significantly reduce' is," the official said.
The official said that Japan represents a model for how other countries could act to avoid sanctions. But under questioning, the official refused to say exactly how much Japan has committed to reducing its dependence on Iranian oil, calling that "commercially protected information." He said Japan reduced its intake of Iranian oil between about 15 to 22 percent over the last half of 2011, depending on how you look at the data.
One senior Senate aide called into question the State Department's decision to issue Japan an exemption. The aide pointed out that the law requires countries to reduce their intake of Iranian oil in 2012, not 2011, and it's not clear if Japan is going to continue that trend ahead of the June 28 deadline.
"The bottom line is that if Japan has in fact committed to reducing their purchases of Iranian oil by 15 to 22 percent in 2012, this exemption is fully warranted. But if this is just a get out of jail free card issued on the basis of past performance alone, this would not be a faithful application of the law," the aide said.
The aide also pointed out that the 10 EU countries are no-brainers for exemptions, because the EU is in the process of implementing a full Iranian oil embargo anyway.
"This is no diplomatic success, this is just cover to make sure that those EU countries that are complying with the embargo have cover from the sanctions."
The State Department's top official for Afghanistan is touring Europe this week, and he's got his tin cup out: His mission is to persuade the international community to contribute to the long-term funding of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Marc Grossman left Washington on Sunday for a trip to Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Warsaw, The Hague, Berlin, Paris, and Brussels. The trip is meant to consult and coordinate with allies on the path forward for Afghanistan in advance of the NATO summit this May in Chicago. At that summit, President Barack Obama's administration wants to announce a plan to keep Afghanistan's army equipped and fed long after the U.S. and coalition forces draw down.
"In the lead up to the summit, we are focused on how best to support sustainable and sufficient Afghan National Security Forces for Afghanistan's future and how we can further strengthen the NATO-Afghanistan Enduring Partnership," a State Department notice said. "Chicago will therefore be a critical milestone in our effort in Afghanistan, as leaders come together to discuss the transition and the future of our support for Afghanistan and its security forces."
The competence and sustainability of the ANSF is crucial to forging the conditions that will allow the United States to draw down in Afghanistan without sacrificing whatever security gains international forces have made there. Since 2002, the United States has spent over $43 billion to train, equip, and sustain the ANSF, according to the Government Accountability Office. Of that total, about $14 billion went to the Afghan National Police, with the rest going to the Afghan National Army.
The current goal is to build up the ANSF to 352,000 personnel by the end of 2014, when the handover of security to the Afghan government is set to be completed. But the international community understands that there's no way the Afghan government could afford to keep a force that large on its own and expectations that the international community will foot the bill are low.
Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller testified Tuesday morning before the House Armed Services Committee that it will make sense to reduce those levels after the 352,000 personnel goal is reached.
Grossman might have some surprise stops at the end of his trip, possibly in "Central Asia," State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said at Monday's press briefing. He probably won't be going to Pakistan, which is reevaluating its relationship with the United States in parliament this week, but he could make a stop in Kabul.
Another possible stop for Grossman is Qatar, the presumed destination of five Taliban commanders the administration is considering transferring from Guantanamo Bay and the possible location of a new Taliban representative office. Grossman met the Taliban in Qatar earlier this year.
"We are still working on that itinerary, so stand by," Nuland said.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
A fire hit the State Department building that houses the day care center early Tuesday morning, but no injuries were reported.
"A fire early this morning in SA-1 (State Annex 1) Low Rise has caused significant water damage to the 5th floor and below," read a notice from the office of emergency management. "The entire Low Rise is closed today, including the child care center. The Hi Rise should be open at 9:00 AM today. Underground parking will be available at that time."
A State Department official told The Cable that the cause of the fire appeared to be electrical, and the sprinkler system extinguished it. The investigation and damage assessment is ongoing, and there's a lot of water from the sprinklers all over the building.
Federal News Radio reported that the fire was extinguished by 7:30 AM, and it was not clear if anyone was inside the building at the time. The building is part of the Columbia Plaza complex, adjacent to the campus of the George Washington University.
The Low Rise may be opened up for a short period of time later today so employees can retrieve personal items, the OEM notice said. But the day care center will remain closed.
"Among other things, the (SA-1) Low Rise houses Diplo-tots, our day care center for employee kids, so we have some little visitors at Main State today unexpectedly helping out moms and dads," the State Department official said.
Four more senators joined the opposition to repealing the Jackson-Vanik trade sanctions law against Russia on Friday, unless that repeal is accompanied by a new law specifically targeting human rights violators inside the Russian government.
Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), and Roger Wicker (R-MS) wrote a letter Friday to Senate Finance Committee heads Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to let them know that they oppose Baucus's effort to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law unless it is replaced with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago.
Without repeal of the Jackson-Vanik law, U.S. businesses can't take full advantage of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, but the senators believe that the Magnitsky bill is needed to ensure the Russian government is not let off the hook for their deteriorating record on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
"In the absence of the passage of the Magnitsky legislation, we will strongly oppose the lifting of Jackson-Vanik," the senators wrote. "Human rights abuses in Russia are widespread and severe, and a legitimate area of focus for U.S. foreign policy. For this reason, what is urgently needed is not merely the elimination of Jackson-Vanik, but its replacement with legislation that is appropriately tailored to the contemporary human rights problems facing the people of Russia. That is precisely the role that the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act would service."
The opposition to a straight repeal of Jackson-Vanik now includes these four senators, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), large portions of the Washington human rights community, and leading Russian opposition figures such as Solidarity movement leader Boris Nemtsov. Those who support repealing Jackson-Vanik without any replacement human-rights legislation include the Obama administration, large sections of the business community, and the Russian government.
Moscow has already praised and promoted the officials accused of torturing Magnitsky for their investigation into the case, and has now begun retrying Magnitsky for criminal tax violations -- even though he is dead.
"While some in the Russian government may be upset if the United States adopts the Magnitsky bill, we believe most Russians will be happy to see us deny the most abusive and corrupt individuals in their country the ability to travel and move their ill-gotten gains overseas," the senators wrote.
UPDATE: A Baucus spokesperson sent in the following statemet regarding Baucus's position on human rights in Russia as it relates to the repeal of Jackson-Vanik:
Chairman Baucus certainly shares the concerns about the human rights situation and he is working with his colleagues to find the best ways to address them. He has met with democracy and human rights activists in Russia and heard directly from them that one way to help improve both democracy and human rights is to repeal Jackson-Vanik and pass PNTR to remove an anti-America propaganda tool and open Russia to transparency. And he has expressed willingness to consider other legislation as well.
YANA LAPIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration is close to finalizing a deal to send 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea, but there are at least 5 U.S. senators who think that constitutes "appeasement" of the North Korean regime.
"We write to express our serious concern about the administration's decision to provide food aid to North Korea in exchange for hollow commitments on denuclearization," reads a March 15 letter to President Barack Obama signed by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), James Inhofe (R-OK), Marco Rubio (R-FL), John Cornyn (R-TX), and James Risch (R-ID), obtained by The Cable.
"Despite continual assurances from senior administration officials that past mistakes of both Republican and Democratic administrations would not be repeated, it is evident to us that the Obama administration is embracing a policy of appeasement with Pyongyang."
The senators argue in the letter that giving food aid to North Korea in exchange for promises related to its nuclear program sends the wrong message to other would-be proliferators. And they charge the administration with breaking its promise not to reward Pyongyang for "buying the same horse twice," as former Defense Secretary Bob Gates once put it.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Glyn Davies and Special Envoy to the Six Party Talks Clifford Hart traveled to Beijing for meetings with top DPRK officials last month, the first U.S.-North Korean direct talks since the December death of Kim Jong Il. After those meetings, the State Department said that the DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests, and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities, and agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at their Yongbyon nuclear site.
The administration argues that the food aid and the nuclear discussions are not linked, but the food aid deal was announced at the same time as the agreement on the nuclear concessions.
And already, there are signs the agreement may be in trouble. Today, North Korea announced it would use a long-range missile to launch a satellite into space next month to mark what would have been the 100th birthday of founding father Kim Il Sung.
"Such a missile launch would pose a threat to regional security and would also be inconsistent with North Korea's recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
The State Department is getting ready to decide if Egypt has done enough to earn its $1.5 billion in U.S. aid for this year, and one leading human rights organization is telling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the answer is no.
"Amnesty International USA is deeply concerned about the ongoing repression of the Egyptian people by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt," the advocacy group wrote in a Wednesday letter to Clinton. "Given the human rights violations in Egypt, the US State Department cannot in good faith certify to the US Congress that the Egyptian government is protecting human rights."
Clinton is in charge of determining whether or not the Egyptian government has met the requirements spelled out in the last congressional appropriations bill as prerequisites for getting the $1.3 billion in annual military aid and another $250 million or so to promote democracy and civil society in Egypt. The law mandates that Clinton certify Egypt is proceeding on the road to a democratic transition, maintaining its commitments under its peace treaty with Israel, and "implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law."
The president can waive those requirements based on national security grounds if he wants.
"We urge you not to make such a certification, and we also oppose any waiving of this certification requirement," the Amnesty International letter states. "Making such a certification would undermine the brave struggle of the Egyptian people for a society founded on respect for human rights and the rule of law. Waiving the certification requirement would forfeit a key form of pressure for the advancement of human rights."
Specifically, Amnesty International opposes the subset of military aid that puts weapons, ammunition, and vehicles in the hands of security forces that have already used such items in human rights violations
We're told that although the State Department is technically in charge of this certification, other agencies are involved in the decision-making process and the Pentagon is pushing internally for at least some of the aid to go through.
Officials and lawmakers threatened to cut the aid to Egypt during the first round of the NGO crisis in January, when the Egyptian government raided several American funded NGOs and charged Americans with crimes for working at those NGOs. Even though those Americans have been allowed to leave Egypt, the Egyptian government's assault on its own civil society continues, Amnesty says.
"The ongoing trial of NGO staff on spurious charges is just one incident in a broader pattern of the new Egyptian regime continuing the old Mubarak practice of muzzling civil society," the group's letter continues.
Amnesty also points out that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which temporarily holds executive power in Egypt, has not rescinded emergency security laws, has continued to perpetrate violence against peaceful protesters, is still trying civilians in military courts, and has worked to exclude women from political participation.
"Furthermore, we call on the State Department to cease the funding, transfer, licensing, or sale of weapons, ammunition, military equipment, and military vehicles that can be used by Egypt's government to suppress human rights," the letter reads. "Any such funding derived from the U.S. Foreign Military Financing program should be halted immediately."
Leading lawmakers on both sides kicked off the coming debate over the Obama administration's plans to speed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a partisan fight over how to extract the U.S. from its longest war with a measure of honor and success.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Obama administration is debating multiple new troop drawdown plans that would govern the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the surge forces is completed this September. According to the report, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is supporting a plan that would remove another 10,000 troops by the end of 2012 and an additional 20,000 troops by June of next year.
Vice President Joe Biden is said to support a plan for an even more precipitous withdrawal. Gen. John Allen, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, reportedly supports keeping more troops there longer than either Donilon or Biden would like.
A number of leading Republican senators told The Cable that they oppose the new, faster Afghanistan troop withdrawal plans under discussion in the Times report, which they see as a trial balloon floated by the White House to frame the coming discussion.
"I hope it's a balloon that busts," said Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Graham laid out the basic argument against the speedier withdrawal: that it is opposed by leading U.S. military officials, is based on the White House's political considerations, and risks sacrificing hard-fought security gains.
"The problem with this administration is that every time the generals give them good advice, they've got to change it," said Graham. "Why is General Allen wrong? If I gotta pick between Joe Biden and General Allen, I'm picking General Allen.... The last thing we want is a bunch of politicians who have been wrong about everything controlling the war."
He also acknowledged that not all Republicans agree with him and even the GOP presidential candidates are becoming skittish on keeping the military committed in Afghanistan. Newt Gingrich said this week that the mission there might not be "doable."
"On the Republican side, we've had one or two folks talking about changing General Allen's withdrawal plan. They don't know what they're talking about. It would be a nightmare for this country for Afghanistan to go poorly," said Graham. "I hope the Republican nominee for president will say something very simple. ‘I know we're war weary. We're going to withdraw. We're going to transition. But we're going to do it based on what the general says.'"
Allen is coming to Washington next week and will testify on Capitol Hill. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable in an interview that Republicans will press Allen to admit the dangers of speeding up the withdrawal plan.
"I'll ask ‘is the risk greater' and he'll say ‘the risk is greater because of these decisions,'" McCain predicted. The Arizona senator described the new, speedier withdrawal option as the administration "continuing the president's stated withdrawals over the objections of his military advisors who he has appointed, sending the message to the region that we are leaving and you have to make accommodations for us not being in the neighborhood, which is a strategy for failure."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) wholly supports the administration removing more troops from Afghanistan at a steady pace, although he acknowledges that some generals disagree.
"After the 30,000 troops are removed by the end of September, the president said a couple months ago that there will be further reductions continuing at a ‘steady pace.' I favored that very much. A number of top uniformed leaders did not," said Levin.
He said the uniformed leadership favored halting the withdrawal of U.S. troops after the 30,000 surge troops leave. That would leave the number of U.S. troops at about 68,000 until as late as 2014, when they would then reduce steeply.
"I have felt the president's ‘steady pace' approach was the right approach. We ought to continue that approach. That was right in terms of success of the mission," said Levin.
He also said that the recent incidents in Afghanistan, including the accidental burning of Qurans and last weekend's alleged murder of 16 Afghan civilians, reinforce the need to continue withdrawing, an argument the president himself made this week.
The White House seems determined to continue the pace of withdrawals into next year despite the criticism coming from Republicans. GOP leaders want the administration to know they will be bringing up Obama's Afghanistan withdrawal plans early and often throughout this election season.
"If you start bleeding [General Allen], you leave everybody left behind in a force protection nightmare and our ability to withdraw with honor and security will be forfeited," said Graham. "And when it goes bad, [the White House] will be reminded of who created it. I promise you that."
UPDATE: National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor denied the Times report. Here's his statement to The Cable:
The White House is not currently reviewing options for further troop withdrawals and no decisions have been made. As the President has said, we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer. After that initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead.
The President will make decisions on further drawdowns at the appropriate time, based on our interests and in consultation with our Allies and Afghan partners. We look forward to meeting in Chicago with NATO leaders to define the next phase of transition.
There are no options, and Tom Donilon isn't pushing any specific option or policy proposal.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The pending deal to move senior Taliban figures from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar is part of a trade for the return of a Western prisoner, according to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
The Obama administration's plan to move five top Taliban officials to live under house arrest in Qatar has been extensively reported but never openly discussed by administration officials. And until Feinstein confirmed it to The Cable, the fact that the crux of the deal is a swap for a Westerner had never been publicly disclosed.
"That's the framework of the exchange. But it's presented as a confidence-building measure," Feinstein said. "We are giving up people who killed a lot of people, people who were head of major efforts of the Taliban."
Feinstein said the deal involved the trade of one Westerner for the five Taliban leaders. She also confirmed the name of the Westerner in question, but The Cable has agreed to withhold that name at the request of U.S. officials out of concern for his safety.
Under the deal, the United States would reportedly place the Taliban officials under the responsibility of the Qatari government, where they would ostensibly remain under some degree of supervision and imprisonment. According to reports, the prisoners being considered for transfer include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister; Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan; and former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund.
But Feinstein said she opposes it.
"These are major Taliban figures, they are not minor people. And they will not be in the same kind of custody, maximum-security custody. Forget that it won't be Guantánamo, just maximum-security custody," she said. "And in my view, there's no way of knowing what they may do and what kind of propaganda they may breed."
Afghan officials have spoken about the deal as a step toward peace talks meant to end the decade-long Afghanistan war, but U.S. lawmakers suspect the released Taliban could eventually end up returning to the fight.
Feinstein said the timing of the deal, with the Taliban still actively engaged against Western forces on the battlefield, was particularly problematic. "To do this as just a confidence-building measure without any acceptance by the Taliban of any rules or agreements or anything else, and at a time when the Taliban are still carrying out raids, planting IEDS, still killing people.... I think if you're able to achieve with the Taliban an agreement then it wouldn't be as horrible as it is," Feinstein said.
The administration has sought hard to preserve the secrecy around the prisoner trade, and administration officials won't confirm any of the details publicly.
Last week, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden denied that a deal had been struck, saying, "The United States has not decided to transfer any Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay" after reports surfaced that the Taliban leaders in question had agreed to be transferred.
"We are not in a position to discuss ongoing deliberations or individual detainees, but our goal of closing Guantánamo is well established and widely understood," she said. "In general, any decision to transfer a detainee from Guantánamo would be undertaken in accordance with U.S. law and in consultation with the Congress."
On Jan. 31, top administration officials briefed eight senators on the deal, including Feinstein. The other senators invited to that classified briefing were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Intelligence Committee ranking Republican Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Senate Armed Services chiefs Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).
In a brief interview Tuesday, Levin declined to comment in any way on the trade. But he did say that he was opposed to any Taliban transfers unless it was part of a peace process.
"I believe that before there's a transfer of anybody that there should be some progress in the negotiations and discussions. That should be used as a way of promoting progress in the discussions with the Taliban, rather than doing that before those discussions have any evidence of success," he said.
McCain, in his own brief Tuesday interview with The Cable, said that a prisoner swap wasn't necessarily a bad idea in principle. But he poured cold water on the notion of linking any such swap to peace talks with the Taliban.
"If it's intended to be a ‘confidence-building measure,' that is an extreme measure. If it's a swap, it's worthy of consideration of Congress, if that is the premise of it," said McCain, a former prisoner himself. "But they're doing it as a ‘confidence-building measure.' That's not confidence building."
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As troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad stormed the opposition-held city of Idlib Tuesday, Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) became the fourth U.S. senator to openly call for U.S. military intervention in Syria ... before he partially walked back those comments in an interview with The Cable.
"Senator, do you support a military intervention in Syria?" The Cable asked Brown in the hallways of the Capitol Building Tuesday.
"Well that's the million-dollar question," he said. "At what point do we do it? Is it 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 killed? At what point do we draw a line in the sand and get involved just based on the humanitarian [considerations] or just our belief that we are a great country and should be helping people?"
"We're at about 10,000 killed so far -- so what do you say?" we pressed.
"I'm at the point right now that I think we should handle it like we did with Libya: Get that coalition and go in and give the opposition a chance to regroup," he said.
"So you're for the U.S. getting involved in another international military intervention in Syria?" we asked. Then the Massachusetts senator appeared to have second thoughts.
"I'm still gathering information," Brown said. "I'm still asking for the appropriate briefings to see what we can do and what the limitations are and how this is different from Libya. And I'll have a more defined statement I think pretty soon."
Brown is not the only GOP senator grappling with the proper way forward in Syria, but other GOP lawmakers at least seemed to have their positions ready at their fingertips. Earlier Tuesday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) confidently told us that he doesn't believe the Syrian revolution is about "democracy."
In another Tuesday interview with The Cable, Senate Armed Services Committee member Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) said she supports increased international pressure on Russia and China but doesn't support U.S. military intervention at this time.
"Right now, I'm very concerned about what's happening in Syria," she said. "There are a number of legislative actions we could take against Russia to stop them from what they are doing."
As for arming the Syrian opposition, Ayotte said, "I think that's something that we should look at doing, but I also think there are other partners that might be in a position to do that, including the Turks."
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President Barack Obama's administration will not support any human rights or democracy legislation in exchange for Congress repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law, which is preventing Russia from getting top trade status with the United States, the U.S. envoy to Moscow said today.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, the former NSC senior director for Russia and a key architect of the administration's "reset" policy with Russia, was in Washington today --along with all other U.S. ambassadors -- in advance of a huge conference at the State Department Tuesday. He made clear, in two separate speaking events, that the administration's top trade priority in 2012 is to repeal the Jackson-Vanik law, which has blocked Russia from getting Permanent Normal Trade Status (PNTR). However, the administration doesn't support any replacement for the law, such as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago.
Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to link the passage of the Magnitsky bill to the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was put in place in the 1970s to punish Russia for its treatment of Jewish would-be emigrants but now stands in the way of lifting U.S.-Russian trade restrictions. Last year, the State Department did quietly issue visa bans for the Russian officials linked to the case, and McFaul said that's enough.
"We believe that we can ban people from coming to this country that do grossly abusive things regarding human rights. And it was strengthened by a human rights executive order last August that we took to give additional authorities. So from our point of view this legislation is redundant to what we're already doing," McFaul said at a Tuesday morning event on Capitol Hill organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), a conservative policy organization. "We took this situation very seriously and we took action."
McFaul got into an impromptu debate at the FPI event about the Magnitsky Act with leading human rights advocates, and one of Magnitsky's original clients, Bill Browder. McFaul reiterated that the administration does not support financial sanctions on Russian human rights violators that go beyond the visa bans, and he said it's not helpful to name the names of the officials who are banned.
The Senate Finance Committee will take up the issue of Russia's PNTR status and the Jackson-Vanik law on Thursday. Committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) visited Russia last month and met with several senior Russian officials on the issue, including lame duck President Dmitry Medvedev.
"Jackson-Vanik from our position is a total no brainer. There's no upside to holding onto Jackson-Vanik right now. Zero. And viewed in human rights terms, there's no upside," McFaul said. "Jackson-Vanik should be terminated because there's no advantage in terms of the debate about democracy. There's no advantage in terms of human rights."
David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, talked at the event about the coordinated campaign by the Russian government to clamp down on democratization and human rights progress in Russia and to blame the current anti-government protests in Russia on the United States.
"Politically, in light of the environment in Russia, which has been deteriorating in Russia, to simply lift Jackson-Vanik without some replacement would be viewed in Moscow and Russian leadership as a sign of weakness on the part of the United States -- again, that we need this relationship more than they do," Kramer said. "And if we don't replace it, then we would, in their minds, be rewarding them despite their bad behavior by not going after them. To me, this has to be a package deal."
At a separate event this afternoon at the Petersen Institute for International Economics, McFaul again said that the administration would not support any human rights bill in exchange for repealing Jackson-Vanik, and made the case that Jackson-Vanik only hurts U.S. businesses.
"We're not going to have an argument about the diagnostics with anybody on Capitol Hill. We're not going to claim Russia's more democratic than you think. We're not going to get into that kind of argument. We'll just agree Russia has problems with these issues. But we disagree on the prescription," he said. "We don't believe that holding on to Jackson-Vanik in any way, shape, or form, advances the cause of democracy, human rights, or rule of law in Russia... there's no causal relationship."
McFaul is pushing for a new civil society fund, which would provide about $50 million in new money support NGOs there. The White House sent the plan to Capitol Hill last October, and McFaul says it is "stuck in Congress." We're told the request for funding is being held up by the office of Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).
"If you want to do something constructive, that's an area where we should be focusing on our attention, not on this weird linkage, like somehow holding Jackson-Vanik is going to make Russia more democratic or is going to help us with Syria," McFaul said. "I dare somebody to stand up today and tell me how not lifting [Jackson-Vanik] helps the cause of promoting rule of law, democracy, and human rights. We just don't see it that way."
McFaul also mentioned in both events the blog post published today by several Russian opposition leaders, including Alexey Navalny and Boris Nemtsov, calling for the repeal of Jackson-Vanik.
"At the end of the day, those who defend the argument that Jackson-Vanik's provisions should still apply to Russia in order to punish Putin's anti-democratic regime only darken Russia's political future, hamper its economic development, and frustrate its democratic aspirations," the opposition leaders wrote. "Jackson-Vanik is also a very useful tool for Mr Putin's anti-American propaganda machine: it helps him to depict the United States as hostile to Russia, using outdated cold-war tools to undermine Russia's international competitiveness."
FPI's Ellen Bork pointed out at the event that Navalny and Nemtsov both support passage of the Magnitsky act, although they didn't mention that in their blog post.
In response to a question from The Cable, McFaul declined to call the recent election of President-elect Vladimir Putin "free and fair," referring to State Department's statements on the election. He also denied accusations that the United States is financially supporting the protest movement, which he characterized as a healthy example of increasing Russian popular political participation.
"I wouldn't call it civil unrest; I would call it civil society renewal. This is not a movement that is seeking the violent overthrow of the current regime. They seek to engage in peaceful actions to reform the current system. That's different from other places around the world," McFaul said. "There are real politics in Russia again. The society is taking their constitutional rights more seriously and the state is responding to that."
Leading human rights activists see the government response to the protests in a harsher light.
"In the past few years, Russia has moved backwards not forwards... The trappings of democracy exist, elections happen," Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said at the FPI event. "But beyond those surface trappings, over the last few years, the Russian government has tried to weaken or dismantle every institution that might check the power of its officials or increase the power of its people."
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The State Department weighed in on the Invisible Children campaign to stop Joseph Kony Thursday, explaining that it is aware of no plan to pull U.S. advisors from the hunt, as the viral video suggests.
"In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That's where the American advisors come in," says the narrator of the video "Kony 2012," produced by the grassroots NGO Invisible Children. The clip has been viewed more than 55 million times on YouTube.
"But in order for the American advisors to be there, the American government has to deploy them," the narration continues. "They've done that, but if the government doesn't believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be cancelled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony's name is everywhere."
Freelance Journalist Michael Wilkerson pointed out in a blog post for FP this week that this fear of some imminent withdrawal of the U.S. advisors doesn't seem to be based on any actual statements from the Obama administration.
"So the goal is to make sure that President Obama doesn't withdraw the advisors he deployed until Kony is captured or killed. That seems noble enough, except that there has been no mention by the government of withdrawing those forces -- at least any I can find," Wilkerson wrote.
At Thursday's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was asked directly if there was any internal consideration of withdrawing the 100 or so U.S. military advisors that President Barack Obama deployed to Africa to aid the fight against Kony's Lords Resistance Army only 5 months ago.
"I don't have any information to indicate that we are considering that," Nuland said, noting that the Pentagon is in charge of the advisors. "As you know, they've only been in for a couple of months, and we consider them a very important augmentation of our effort to help the East and Central African countries with this problem."
Nuland said the Invisible Children effort was helpful but she noted that the cause the group is supporting has been something the U.S. government has been active on and aware of for years, although she noted that State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner was made aware of the video yesterday by his 13-year old daughter.
"Well, certainly we appreciate the efforts of the group Invisible Children to shine a light on the horrible atrocities of the LRA. As you know, there are neighboring states, there are NGO groups who have been working on this problem for decades," she said. As you know, thousands of people around the world, especially the young people, have been mobilized to express concern for the communities in Central Africa that have been placed under siege by the LRA. So the degree to which this YouTube video helps to increase awareness and increase support for the work that governments are doing, including our own government -- that can only help all of us."
As for the campaign's goal that Kony be arrested by the end of 2012, that just might not be possible, the U.S. military is warning. At a congressional hearing late last month, AFRICOM Commander Gen. Carter Ham said that there was no way to tell when the LRA might be defeated.
"The Lord's Resistance Army is an organization that creates through violence a tremendous amount of instability in a four-country region of east and central Africa," Ham said. "Initially beginning in Uganda but now extending their efforts into South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, they've displaced many thousands of African citizens and brought terror and fear to families across the region."
"To date, what we have found is that presence of the U.S. mostly special forces advisors that are working with the armed forces of those four nations are having a very positive effect," said Ham, but added that the effort is "not yet to the point where we see the end in sight."
In a Feb. 22 briefing with reporters, Navy Rear Adm. Brian Losey, commander of Special Operations Command Africa, said that the LRA is on the run and is down to about 200 core fighters.
"Now they are only a small percentage of their former strength," Losey said.
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Libya's interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department Thursday, but let's hope he didn't check the State Department's website, which still has Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi listed as the head of the country.
Sure, the Arab Spring must keep the State Department web teams busy with revisions, but Qaddafi has been dead for months now. You wouldn't know that by reading the State Department's website, though, as it still shows the all-green Qaddafi flag on its Libya page and refers to Libya as the "Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya." The Libya page was last updated in July 2011, after NATO forces had begun attacking Libya but before the Qaddafi regime fell. (And yes, the State Department gift shop still sells flag pins with the old Libyan flag juxtaposed with the stars and stripes.)
Clinton celebrated the new Libyan government in her remarks after her meeting with Keib.
"Just think, this time last year, the United States was working to build an international coalition of support for the Libyan people, and today we are proud to continue that support as the people of Libya build a new democracy that will bring about peace and prosperity and protect the rights and dignity of every citizen," she said.
"We've seen progress in each of the three key areas of democratic society -- building an accountable, effective government; promoting a strong private sector; and developing a vibrant civil society. And we will stand with the people of Libya as it continues this important work."
Clinton lauded Libya's new election law and endorsed the goal of holding constitutional assembly elections this June. She praised Libya's increasing oil production and acknowledged the country still has a ways to go in the areas of border security, integrating militias, and working toward national reconciliation.
Keib thanked the entire Obama administration "for having been a tremendous support and for their strong leadership in supporting the Libyan revolution," and asked Clinton for help in retrieving the billions that Qaddafi is thought to have stolen from Libya and returning it to the Libyan people.
"In the past year, the dynamics between the U.S. and Libya has been dramatically transformed for the better," he said.
On Wednesday morning, Keib met with President Barack Obama and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at the White House. He spoke at the U.N. Security Council in the afternoon and attended a dinner at the official residence of U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, sharing a table with actress Angelina Jolie and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Keib said Thursday he was not aware of any training camps in Libya for Syrian rebels, as the Russian government has alleged exist, but said he supports the Syrian opposition and formal recognition of the Syrian National Council. Libya has pledged $100 million for the Syrian cause.
Clinton said the Libyan National Transition Council (NTC) could be a model for the Syrian opposition.
"[The NTC] presented a unified presence that created an address as to where to go to help them, a lot of confidence in their capacities on the ground, their commitment to the kind of inclusive democracy that Libya is now building," Clinton said. "And we are working closely with the Syrian opposition to try to assist them to be able to present that kind of unified front and resolve that I know they feel in their own -- on their behalf is essential in this struggle against the brutal Assad regime."
And Clinton was quick to mention that she raised with Keib the issue of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 108 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the U.S. desire to see the convicted plotter Abdelbaset al-Megrahi returned to prison.
"You know where I stand. I believe that Megrahi should still be behind bars," she said. "We will continue to fight for justice for all the victims of Qaddafi and his regime. And in this particular case, the U.S. Department of Justice has an open case, and it will remain open while we work together on it."
For years, a slew of advocates - many of whom have been paid for their services -- have flooded U.S. airwaves on behalf of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime.
After months of difficult negotiations, the MEK has finally begun moving out of its secretive Iraqi home near the Iranian border, called Camp Ashraf. But the group's American advocates have now become a major obstacle in the international effort to move the MEK to a new home in Iraq and avoid a bloody clash with the Iraqi military, officials say.
U.N. special representative in Iraq Martin Kobler, with help from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and the State Department, has organized efforts to relocate the MEK to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport. The first convoy of about 400 MEK members arrived there last month. The second convoy of about 400 MEK members arrived Thursday at Camp Liberty, Reuters reported.
The United Nations and the U.S. government have worked tirelessly in recent months to avoid a violent clash between the MEK and the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which is determined to oust the MEK from Camp Ashraf, where more than 3,000 members of the group, many of them suspected to be armed, have lived for years. Two previous attempts by the Iraqi government to enter the camp resulted in bloody confrontations.
But the U.N. and the State Department's efforts have been made exponentially more difficult due to the MEK's surprisingly strong base of support in Washington. In recent weeks, retired U.S. officials and politicians -- many of whom admit to being paid by the MEK or one of its many affiliates -- have mounted a sophisticated media campaign accusing the U.N. and the U.S. government of forcing the group to live in subhuman conditions against its will at Camp Liberty, an accusation U.S. officials say is as inaccurate as it is unhelpful.
"This is tough enough without paid advocates making it worse," one official told The Cable.
"Camp Liberty: A Prison For Iranian Dissidents in Iraq," reads a March 3 full-page ad in the New York Times, leveling the surprising accusation that the former U.S. military base is unfit for human occupation. The ad quotes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani calling Camp Liberty "a concentration camp" -- a charge Giuliani made at an MEK-sponsored conference late last month in Paris. The ad also quotes former Democratic National Committee chairman and Vermont Governor Howard Dean, former Homeland Security secretary and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz trashing Camp Liberty.
However, according to an Obama administration official who works on the issue, it's actually the MEK that is trashing Camp Liberty -- literally. According to this official, the U.N. has reported that MEK members at Camp Liberty have been sabotaging the camp, littering garbage and manipulating the utilities to make things look worse than they really are. While there are some legitimate problems at the camp, the official admitted, the U.N. has been monitoring Camp Liberty's water, sewage, and food systems on a daily basis and the conditions are better than the MEK is portraying.
The New York Times ad is only the latest in a years-long, multi-million dollar campaign by the MEK and its supporters to enlist famous U.S. politicians and policymakers in their efforts to get the group removed from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations and resist Iraqi attempts to close Camp Ashraf, which the new government sees as a militarized cult compound on its sovereign territory.
The campaign has included huge rallies outside the State Department, massive sit-ins at congressional hearings, and an ongoing vigil outside the State Department's C Street entrance. MEK supporters there tout the support of a long list of officials, including Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, and former Sen. Evan Bayh.
The administration official told The Cable that, as delicate negotiations between the U.N., the United States, the Iraqis, and the MEK continue, the role of these often paid advocates is becoming even more unhelpful and potentially dangerous.
"The Americans who ought to know better and claim to be on the side of good solutions are really damaging it. Either they are too lazy or too arrogant to actually do their homework. They don't spend the time to learn facts, they just pop off. They accept the MEK line without question and then they posture," the official said. "We have a plan that has a chance to work and the Iraqis want it to work. The MEK ... it's not clear. And in this situation they are being badly advised by the people whose names appear in these ads."
"Whether the MEK wants a resolution or wants a confrontation is something we're still debating. It's that bad," the official said.
The relationship between the American advocates and the MEK leadership, led by the Paris-based Maryam Rajavi, has led both to pursue strategies that neglect the dire risks of sabotaging the move from Camp Liberty to Camp Ashraf, the official said. Rajavi is said to have created a cult of personality around herself and to rule the MEK as a unchallenged monarch.
"The not-too-stable Queen [Rajavi] hired a bunch of court flatterers to tell her that she's great, which is fine, except that she has now forgotten that these are hired court flatterers. She thinks they are actual advisors," the official said. "Meanwhile her wise counselors are being marginalized by those who are saying ‘Oh Queen, your magnificence will cause your enemies to fall on their knees.' And she's beginning to believe them."
"By enabling Rajavi to indulge her worst instincts and encouraging her to think she has more power and leverage she does, they may precipitate a crisis, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid," the official said.
Another example of the American advisors' unhelpfulness was the MEK's recent public call to be relocated en masse to Jordan, an idea the U.S. official said came from the group's American friends. There was just one problem: Nobody had asked the Jordanians.
"To announce it publicly as a demand without checking with the Jordanians is the sort of thing you do to destroy it," the official said. "Why the hell should the Jordanians buy trouble like this by giving these people an autonomous militarized camp?"
U.N. and U.S. officials had been hoping to keep discussions open with Jordan about the possibility of hosting some MEK members in the event of an emergency, such as a renewed outbreak of violence. But U.S. officials now think that the MEK's actions have made that much more difficult.
"Whoever advised them has done actual demonstrable damage to a possible humanitarian solution. They're not helping. It's remarkable," the official said.
The arrival at Camp Liberty Thursday of the second convoy may signal that the MEK is coming around to the realization that the Iraqi government will never allow it to stay at Camp Ashraf. But the U.S. official warned that the group may have more tricks up its sleeve.
"The MEK will delay, confuse, deny, and spin until faced with an imminent disaster, and then they give only enough to avoid that disaster," the official said. "And the problem is: If you play chicken enough, eventually you will get into a head-on collision."
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
If the Obama administration wants to enter new talks with Iran, that's fine -- but they had better keep ramping up the pressure on the Islamic Republic during negotiations and not trade sanctions for piecemeal concessions from the Iranians, 12 U.S. senators said Wednesday.
"As the P-5+1 prepares to resume talks with Iran, we strongly believe that any hope for diplomatic progress with Iran depends upon a continuing and expanding campaign of U.S. and international pressure on the regime and that such pressure must continue until there is a full and complete resolution of all components of illicit Iranian nuclear activities," said Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Jim Risch (R-ID), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in a joint statement Wednesday.
"As we recently wrote to President Obama, we remain extremely concerned that the Iranian government will seek to buy time or otherwise dilute the focus of our diplomacy through proposals that either suspend or reverse the current momentum of the pressure track in exchange for partial measures that fail to address the totality of their nuclear program," the senators' statement continued. "Such tactical maneuverings are a dangerous distraction and should not be tolerated. For instance, we would strongly oppose any proposal that caps or limits sanctions against the Iranian regime in exchange for anything less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment."
When Iran offered to come back to talks last month, these 12 senators were quick to put together a letter outlining their precise concerns and what they wanted to see President Barack Obama's administration do.
In addition to continuing along the pressure track, they want the administration to insist that Iran suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities "for the foreseeable future," cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and resolve all outstanding questions about military dimensions of its nuclear program. The Obama administration has said repeatedly that Iran has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but these 12 senators don't agree.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, in her March 6 letter welcoming new talks, acknowledged that the P5+1 countries - Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany -- will engage in discussions over confidence-building measures to the Iranian government.
"We remain convinced that initially we could work towards the shared objective to engage in a constructive dialogue on the basis of reciprocity and a step by step approach based on practical and specific suggestions for confidence building measures," she wrote.
But the senators think that is foolish, and want to emphasize that the administration should not trade the relaxation of sanctions for partial measures by the Iranians, which they see as a delaying tactic.
"Such tactical maneuverings are a dangerous distraction and should not be tolerated," the senators wrote. "For instance, we would strongly oppose any proposal that caps or limits sanctions against the Iranian regime in exchange for anything less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment. The time for confidence building measures is over."
Top administration officials, leading lawmakers, and GOP presidential candidates have all weighed in on Sen. John McCain's proposal to launch U.S.-led airstrikes to halt the violence in Syria, but there is still no consensus on the costs and benefits of entangling the U.S. military in another armed conflict.
"Just as was the case with Libya, there is a broad consensus among regional leaders and organizations on the preferred outcome in Syria: Assad and his cronies must go. There is not, however, a consensus about how this goal could be achieved," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) said at Wednesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Levin didn't say whether he was for or against a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria, but he warned of the risks and talked about the possible impact on the region.
McCain was more clear, repeating his call for foreign air power to be used against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, and calling for the immediate arming of the Syrian opposition -- hopefully with international cooperation from Arab partners and European allies.
"It is understandable that the administration is reluctant to move beyond diplomacy and sanctions. Unfortunately, this policy is increasingly disconnected from the dire conditions on the ground in Syria, which has become a full state of armed conflict," McCain said.
He urged Panetta to remember his time as White House chief of staff during the NATO intervention in Bosnia and quoted President Bill Clinton as saying at the time, "There are times and places where our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war and where we can defend our fundamental values as a people and serve our most basic strategic interests. There are still times when America and America alone can and should make the difference for peace."
McCain also quoted CENTCOM chief Gen. James Mattis, who testified Tuesday that "Assad is clearly achieving what he wants to achieve" that his military campaign is "gaining physical momentum on the battlefield." Mattis also noted that Assad's downfall would be "the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years."
In his testimony, Panetta clearly ruled out any unilateral military action by the United States in Syria, but he left the door wide open to a multilateral mission inside Syria at some later date. Yesterday, President Barack Obama said that no option in Syria has been taken off the table.
"We are reviewing all possible additional steps that can be taken with our international partners to support the efforts to protect the Syrian people, to end the violence, and ensure regional stability, including potential military options, if necessary," Panetta said. "Currently, the administration is focusing on diplomatic and political approaches rather than military intervention."
"We need to have a clear legal basis for any action that we take. For us to act unilaterally would be a mistake," Panetta said. "Can it happen today? Can it happen now? No. It's gonna take some work; it's going to take some time. But when we do it, we'll do it right. We will not do it in a way that will make the situation worse. That's what we have to be careful of."
Dempsey said the Pentagon has planned for several possible military actions in Syria, including delivering humanitarian relief, imposing a no-fly zone, conducting maritime interdiction, establishing humanitarian corridors, and executing limited air strikes. He said the planning was at a "commander's estimate level of detail," and that there had been briefing to the National Security Council staff but not the president directly.
"As you know, we're extraordinarily capable and we can do just about anything we're asked to do," Dempsey said. "The ability to do a single raid-like strike would be accessible to us. The ability to do a longer-term sustained campaign would be challenging, and would have to be made in the context of other commitments around the globe."
Dempsey also confirmed elements of The Cable's Tuesday story on Syria, including the fact that Russia continues to arm the Syrian regime, including with advanced air defense systems.
Panetta said he believed that NATO should start debating the issue of a military intervention in Syria. That discussion so far has not begun in Brussels, according to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Panetta also said the Pentagon will not begin planning for a Syria intervention in detail until directed to do so by the president.
"I don't think there's any question that we're experiencing mass atrocities there," Panetta added.
Yesterday, several top Republican politicians declined to go along with McCain's call for airstrikes on Syria now, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
In a short interview Tuesday, McCain said that didn't bother him one bit.
"I couldn't care less," McCain said. "I know the difference between right and wrong. I know that people are being slaughtered as we speak."
"I refer back to Bosnia and Kosovo. Under President Clinton, we acted although there were Republicans strongly opposed to that. I think it turned out well."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who joined McCain's call for airstrikes along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), told The Cable Tuesday that he preferred a multilateral military intervention in Syria over a unilateral strike.
"The Arab League is the right vehicle," said Graham. "If they request air support I'm willing to be part of the team. But I want the Arab League and the international community to be deeply involved and I want it to be to stop the slaughter."
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) took to the Senate floor Tuesday to pick apart Mitt Romney's latest op-ed on Iran.
"The United States cannot afford to let Iran acquire nuclear weapons. Yet under Barack Obama, that is the course we are on," Romney wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post. "As president, I would move America in a different direction."
Romney said he would increase the Navy's shipbuilding rate from 9 to 15 ships per year and pledged to "press forward" with ballistic missile-defense systems aimed at Iran and North Korea. He also promised to press for "ever-tightening sanctions," to speak out in support of democracy in Iran, visit Jerusalem on his first trip as president, place aircraft carrier groups in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, and increase coordination with Israel.
"Most important, I will buttress my diplomacy with a military option that will persuade the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Only when they understand that at the end of that road lies not nuclear weapons but ruin will there be a real chance for a peaceful resolution," Romney wrote. "Either the ayatollahs will get the message, or they will learn some very painful lessons about the meaning of American resolve."
Kerry said on the floor today that Romney's op-ed troubled him and he said Romney's attack on the administration's Iran policy was "as inaccurate as it was aggressive." The timing of the op-ed, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington, was additionally unfortunate, in Kerry's view.
"We should all remember that the nuclear issue with Iran is deadly serious business that should invite sobriety and serious-minded solutions, not sloganeering and sound bites. This can't become just another applause line on the Republican presidential stump," Kerry said. "Talk has consequences, and idle talk of war only helps Iran by spooking the tight oil market and increasing the price of the Iranian crude that pays for its nuclear program. And to create false differences with the president just to score political points does nothing to move Iran off a dangerous nuclear course."
"Worst of all, Governor Romney's op-ed does not even do readers the courtesy of describing how a President Romney would do anything different from what the Obama administration has already done," Kerry said. "Just look at this op-ed. From his opening paragraphs, Romney garbles history."
Kerry disputed Romney's assertion that President Jimmy Carter's efforts to negotiate the release of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1981 was "feckless," and his claim that Obama was the most "feckless" president since Carter, considering he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
"I don't know if Governor Romney has checked the definition of the word ‘feckless' lately, but that ain't it," Kerry said.
Kerry then goes point by point through Romney's op-ed to argue that Obama has basically the same Iran policy Romney is proposing. Kerry even quotes Ambassador Nick Burns, President George W. Bush's lead negotiator on Iran, who said, "The attacks on Obama basically say, ‘He's weak and we're strong.' But when you look at the specifics, you don't see any difference."
"So when you add it all up, Mitt Romney is just trying to ignore, twist, and distort the administration's policy to drive a wedge in our politics," Kerry said. "We're going to have a bruising election season. And so we should. That's how we decide big issues in the United States. We always have. But let's have an honest debate, not a contrived one. Governor Romney can debate the man in the White House instead of inventing straw men on the op-ed pages."
Obama himself criticized the GOP presidential candidates for their rhetoric on the possibility of a war with Iran during his press conference today.
"You know, those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities. They're not commander in chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war. I'm reminded that the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle and the impact that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy," Obama said.
"This is not a game. And there's nothing casual about it. And, you know, when I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we've been doing over the last three years, it indicates to me that that's more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem."
If Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai doesn't change his tune fast on two key U.S. demands, the U.S. military should just pack up and go home and leave Afghanistan for good, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said today.
Graham, who has been one of the strongest congressional supporters for continuing the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan beyond 2014, said today that unless Karzai relents on his demands that the United States immediately hand over control of Afghan prisoners and end night raids against insurgents, there is no way the U.S. can achieve its objectives in Afghanistan and therefore should just end its involvement there.
"If the president of the country can't understand how irrational it is to expect us to turn over prisoners and if he doesn't understand that the night raids have been the biggest blow to the Taliban ... then there is no hope of winning. None," Graham said in the hallways of the Capitol Building just before entering the GOP caucus lunch.
"So if he insists that all the prisoners have to be turned over by March 9 and that we have to stop night raids, that means we will fail in Afghanistan and that means Lindsey Graham pulls the plug. It means that I no longer believe we can win and we might as well get out of there sooner rather than later."
Graham acknowledged that those two issues were crucial in ongoing negotiations over a U.S.-Afghanistan Status of Forces Agreement, which would provide the legal basis for the ongoing presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014, the deadline President Barack Obama has set for transferring full control of the country back to the Afghans.
"I am going to pull the plug on Afghanistan from a personal point of view if we don't get this strategic partnership signed," Graham said. "Karzai's insistence that all detainees we have in our custody be turned over by Friday to an Afghan system that will let guys walk right out the door and start killing Americans again is a non-starter."
Graham, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations' State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, visited Kabul and met with Karzai late last month. Today he said he supports a U.S.-Afghanistan agreement for a post-2014 presence of about 20,000 U.S. troops, with three or four U.S. airbases and coordination in the military, political, and economic spheres.
"But I'm not going to support signing that agreement if Karzai insists that we end night raids, which are the biggest blow available to our forces against the enemy," he said. "If he requires that we end night raids, we'll have no hope of being successful."
Regarding the prisoners, Graham said that any follow-on U.S. force would be put at risk if U.S.-held prisoners, currently numbering over 3,000, were placed under Afghan control.
"I cannot go back home to South Carolina and tell a mother, ‘I'm sorry your son or daughter was killed today by a guy we had in custody but let go for no good reason.' We want Afghan sovereignty over prisoners but they're not there yet," he said. "That's not good governance. That hurts the Afghan villagers that have been preyed on by these people and it sure as hell puts our people at risk. I want an agreement but not at all costs."
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The Obama administration is moving to provide direct assistance to the internal opposition in Syria for the first time, marking a shift in U.S. policy toward a more aggressive plan to help oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Last week, a group of senior Obama administration officials met to finalize a package of options for aiding both the internal and external Syrian opposition, to include providing direct humanitarian and communications assistance to the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable. This meeting of what's known as the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council set forth a new and assertive strategy for expanding U.S. engagement with Syrian activists and providing them with the means to organize themselves, but stops short of providing any direct military assistance to the armed opposition.
For now, riskier options, such as creating a no-fly zone in Syria, using U.S. military force there, or engaging directly with the Free Syrian Army, are all still off the table. But the administration has decided not to oppose, either in public or in private, the arming of the rebels by other countries, the officials said.
"These moves are going to invest the U.S. in a much deeper sense with the opposition," one administration official said. "U.S. policy is now aligned with enabling the opposition to overthrow the Assad regime. This codifies a significant change in our Syria policy."
The package of options will be debated by cabinet-level officials at what's known as a Principals Committee meeting as early as this afternoon, the two officials said. The principals could endorse the entire package or make some changes, the officials said, although the package does have the consensus of the interagency coming out of last week's Deputies Committee meeting.
The administration is planning to greatly expand its interactions with the external Syrian opposition, led by the Syrian National Council, as well as with internal opposition bodies to include Syrian NGOs, the Local Coordinating Councils, and the Revolutionary Councils that are increasingly becoming the de facto representation of the Syrian opposition. The Free Syrian Army works with these councils, but the administration is not ready to engage the armed rebels directly out of concern that they are still somewhat unaccountable and may have contacts with extremist elements.
As part of the new outreach, the State Department and USAID have been tasked with devising a plan to speed humanitarian and communications assistance to the internal Syrian civilian opposition, working through State's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) office. There is no concrete plan yet as to how to get the goods into Syria if the Assad regime doesn't grant access to affected areas.
"We're leaving State and USAID to work that out. That's the million-dollar question. We're working on that now," the official explained.
Meanwhile, the administration wants to bolster the new defense committee established by the SNC last week, hoping to solidify that body's prominence as the contact point for coordinating military and technical assistance to the rebels, if a decision is taken later to move in that direction. The FSA has rejected the SNC's defense committee as being part of its chain of command, but for now the Obama administration sees the SNC as a more credible organization with which to explore options to potentially provide military aid.
"The prevailing narrative is enabling the transition while keeping options open for reaching out to the armed opposition," the administration official said. "There is recognition that lethal assistance to the opposition may be necessary, but not at this time."
At last month's initial Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that arming the Syrian rebels was "an excellent idea," though there are conflicting reports as to whether and to what extent Saudi weapons and cash were already flowing into the country.
In preparation for the next Friends of Syria meeting in Turkey later this month, the Obama administration has decided not to openly oppose direct military assistance to the rebels as long as it comes from another country, not the United States, one of the administration officials said.
"The decision has been made at the next Friends of Syria meeting to not oppose any proposals to arm the FSA and we're not going to publicly or privately message on that," the official said. "We're not going to publicly or privately tell the Friends of Syria not to do this."
Inside the administration, there is still a consensus that U.S. military intervention in Syria is not wise at this time and there are still voices expressing hope that political transition could take place in Syria without all out civil war.
"It's more about what could be accomplished by intervening. So many questions haven't been answered," another administration official said, expressing the widespread internal uneasiness about involving the U.S. military in yet another war in the Middle East. "There's a chance we could get embroiled in a conflict. What does that do to our preparedness for other contingencies?"
Some in the administration still hold out hope that the Russians can be persuaded to play a more helpful role in Syria. But two officials confirmed that Russian arms deliveries to Syria are ongoing and one administration official said that the latest shipment included large amounts of advanced anti-aircraft missile systems, which are meant to help Syria repel any attempt to establish a no-fly zone.
"What that says is that the Russians are doubling down on Assad. They're preparing for the next step, which is the internationalization of the conflict," one administration official said.
For the critics of Obama's Syria policy, these moves represent a step in the right direction but still fall short of what is needed for the United States to halt the violence.
"I am encouraged the Obama administration is exploring steps to provide direct assistance to Syrians inside their country, but the incremental measures reportedly under consideration still do not come to grips with the fundamental reality in Syria, which is that Bashar al-Assad, equipped and resupplied by Iran and Russia, is now waging an outright war against the Syrian people, who are outmatched, outgunned, and urgently in need of decisive international intervention," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable today.
Lieberman, along with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) came out Monday in favor of a U.S.-led intervention in Syria to begin immediately.
"To me this should begin with medical and military assistance for the opposition, including tactical intelligence and weapons, and ultimately should include targeted airstrikes against Assad's bases and forces," Lieberman said. "The United States should help organize such support for the Syrian opposition, but it should be international and include our concerned allies in the Arab League, the GCC, NATO, and the EU."
Lieberman, McCain, and Graham will all have a chance to question the administration on these new moves Wednesday when the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joints Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment on the administration's internal deliberations.
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Airstrikes against Syria are tempting but ultimately not a good idea, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) told The Cable today, reacting to the Monday call for airstrikes from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), also first reported here.
It's not easy these days to be more hawkish than Ros-Lehtinen, but that's where McCain ended up today after he called for the United States to lead an international military intervention in Syria to halt the killing of civilians by President Bashar al-Assad.
"Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower," McCain said Monday. "To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country."
We caught up with Ros-Lehtinen, who has been vocally opposed to any outreach to the Assad regime since 2009, on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference, where she had just finished her appearance on a panel calling for more Iran sanctions.
Ros-Lehtinen told us she wants the United States to do more to stop the bloodshed there, but active military involvement at this juncture was just a bridge too far.
"Senator McCain's heart is always in the right place. He was right on Egypt and Libya. But I believe that we've got to get our allies involved and get them committed," she said. "So my heart agrees with him, but my head says no."
Ros-Lehtinen said the American people, following decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that seem to finally be winding down, are war weary.
"The American people and the constituents that I represent, they are cautious about getting involved in another military operation," she said. "I understand the humanitarian issues involved... But I hear people saying, ‘Who's going to enforce the no-fly zone? Who's going to do all of this? Is it always the U.S.?'"
Attacks on Syria now could also create a "domino effect" that could lead to a hot war with Iran, which considers Syria a client state, Ros-Lehtinen warned.
"Senator McCain has been right, but I worry the Syria operation may be harder because of its tie-ins to Iran and what will Iran do militarily," she said.
She said her committee will mark up a new Syria sanctions bill she co-sponsored with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) March 8. The bill imposes mandatory sanctions against persons that transfer or retransfer goods or technology that can aid Syria's efforts to obtain WMDs and their delivery systems. Further, the legislation mandates extensive sanctions, including asset freezes and a travel ban, on senior officials of the Syrian regime.
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.