One day before the AIPAC conference kicks off in Washington, an anti-Obama pro-Israel group is widening its criticism of President Barack Obama's record on Israel -- while the White House defends its treatment of the relationship.
The trailer for a new 30-minute video, entitled "Daylight: The Story of Obama and Israel," cuts together clips of Obama quotes and outside commentary to put forth the narrative that Obama has made statements and taken actions as president that have put him out of step with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters.
(UPDATE: Now you can watch the entire 30 minute video here.)
"We believe that that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines," Obama is shown saying, a reference to his May, 2011 speech, where he for the first time explicitly defined U.S. policy as supporting the 1967 borders with agreed swaps as the basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
"He didn't quite have a full grasp of what the full region looks like," conservative journalist Lee Smith is shown saying in the video. "This is not how you treat an ally."
The ad goes beyond the Israeli issue to suggest that the president is too solicitous of Muslim concerns. The end of the trailer shows Obama saying, "I want to make sure we end before the call to prayer," a clip from his town hall meeting with Turkish students in Istanbul in April 2009.
The video was produced by the group the Emergency Committee for Israel, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on its pre-AIPAC publicity campaign, including posters and billboards all over Washington that question Obama's commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"He says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Do you believe him?" the posters read. Then, next to a picture of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, it says, "Do they?"
ECI is run by executive director Noah Pollak and Michael Goldfarb, a former McCain-Palin staffer now working at the consulting firm Orion Strategies and as chairman of the board of the Washington Free Beacon, an new conservative website.
"Obama says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable," Pollak told The Cable today. "We hope he means what he says, but the recent statements from his administration, his contentious relationship with the Israeli government, and his consistent efforts to weaken congressional sanctions don't inspire confidence."
The ECI board is comprised of Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, Gary Bauer, who has endorsed Rick Santorum, and Rachel Abrams, the wife of former NSC official Elliott Abrams, and the author of the controversial Israel-focused blog "Bad Rachel." The group is also the only Israel-focused advocacy organization to have formed a SuperPAC in the run up to the 2012 election.
As part of its pre-AIPAC activity, ECI took out a full page ad in the New York Times yesterday calling out donors for supporting two liberal advocacy organizations in Washington, the Center for American Progress and Media Matters, and accusing those donors of "funding bigotry and anti-Israel extremism."
Pollak also said that the video, billboards, and ads happen to refute a pre-AIPAC interview Obama gave to The Atlantic, in which Obama expressed frustration with the attacks coming from conservative lawmakers and groups like ECI that claim he is not pro-Israel.
"Every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept," Obama said. "Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they've had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?"
"Obama said today he doesn't understand why there are questions about his record of support for Israel," Pollak said. "We think this movie will set the record straight, and remind pro-Israel Americans of the facts of this administration's failure to stand with Israel at some critical moments."
Here is the full video:
If the international community gave the Syrian rebels arms, communications equipment, and intelligence, that would help speed President Bashar al-Assad's removal from power, the top U.S. military official in Europe said Thursday.
Navy Admiral James Stavridis, Commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, told the Senate Armed Services that NATO is not doing any "detailed planning" for ways to aid the Syrian opposition or protect Syrian civilians. But under intense questioning from the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Stavridis admitted he believed that giving material aid to the rebels would help them get better organized and push forward the process of getting the Assad to step down.
"Yesterday the secretary-general of NATO, Mr. Rasmussen, told The Cable, quote, ‘We haven't had any discussions about a NATO role in Syria and I don't envision such a role for the alliance,'" McCain said, referring directly to our Feb. 29 exclusive interview with Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"Is it true that NATO is doing no contingency planning of any kind with respect to Syria, including for the provision of humanitarian and medical assistance?" McCain asked Stavridis.
"We're not doing any detailed contingency planning at this point, senator, and there's a reason for that. Within the NATO command structure, there has to be an authorization from the North Atlantic Council before we can conduct detailed planning," Stavridis said. The North Atlantic Council is the body charged with making NATO policy decisions.
After getting Stavridis to confirm he believes the Syrian crisis is now an armed conflict between government and opposition forces, McCain then asked Stavridis if the provision of arms, communication equipment, and tactical intelligence would help the Syrian opposition to better organize itself and push Assad from power.
"I would think it would. Yes, sir," Stavridis replied.
McCain contrasted NATO's reluctance to intervene in Syria with previous NATO missions to halt massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) seconded that comparison at the hearing.
"This does remind me of experiences we had in Bosnia and Kosovo in the '90s," Lieberman said. "It actually took quite a while for us to build the political will, both here and in Europe, to get involved there. And while we were doing that, a lot of people got killed, and the same is happening in Syria now. I hope it doesn't take us so long."
Just down the hall from the SASC hearing, two top State Department officials were giving an entirely different take on the efficacy of arming the rebels. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration just doesn't think that arming the Syria rebels is a good idea.
"We've been very hesitant about pouring fuel onto a conflagration that Assad himself has set," Feltman testified Thursday. "So we're very cautious about this whole area of questioning and that's why we have worked with this international consensus on political tracks, on economic tracks, on diplomatic tracks, in order to get to the tipping point we were talking about earlier."
As Ben Smith in Politico reported Thursday, the Syria issue has divided Congress on traditional party and ideological lines -- lines that were muddled during the debate over intervention in Libya because of internal Republican disagreement. Most GOP senators and leading congressmen, along with all the GOP presidential candidates, are urging the Obama administration to begin directly aiding the Syrian rebels now.
Leading congressional Democrats, to the extent they have commented on the issue, have been more reluctant to get more involved in the Syria crisis. House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told reporters Thursday, "If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try. Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
"It is critical that we all proceed with extreme caution and with our eyes wide open," SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said at the Thursday hearing. "There are serious questions to be answered about the Free Syrian Army, but it is not too soon to think about how the international community could shape its thinking or encourage restraint."
The debate in Congress over aiding the Syrian rebels will ramp up next week, with a March 6 SASC hearing with Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis and a March 7 SASC hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Fifteen foreign NGO workers were allowed to leave Egypt Thursday in what U.S. officials said was a positive step toward the resolution of a simmering crisis. But all sides warn that the crisis is still far from being resolved.
The Egyptian government removed the travel ban on foreign employees of several Cairo-based NGOs that were raided last December, allowing 8 Americans, 3 Serbs, 2 Germans, 1 Norwegian, and 1 Palestinian to speed to the Cairo airport and fly out Thursday. The Americans include Sam LaHood, director of the International Republican Institute and son of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood. Other American- funded NGOs -- including the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House -- have been harassed and had their staffs charged with crimes. Several Egyptian NGOs have also been targeted.
"We are very pleased that the Egyptian courts have now
lifted the travel ban on our NGO employees. The U.S. government has provided a
plane to facilitate their departure and they have left the country. They are
currently en route home," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday.
But she indicated that the United States and Egypt still have some differences to iron out.
"The departure of our people doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs," Nuland said. "We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process, and we will keep working with the Egyptian government on these issues."
Behind the scenes, the administration and several unlikely allies in Congress have been scrambling in recent days to urge the Egyptian government to produce some tangible progress on the issue before the Americans were dragged into Egyptian courts for trial and before the U.S. Congress moved to cut off Egypt's $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid, $1.3 billion of which goes to the Egyptian military.
According to officials and staffers close to the issue, the bulk of the credit for the progress thus far goes to the administration and first of all Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, who has been working furiously to resolved the crisis in Cairo. Other key officials involved were Brooke Anderson, the National Security Council chief of staff, who was the White House point person on the issue, and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns. The Justice Department and State Department Counselor Harold Koh have also been heavily involved, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey visited Cairo earlier this month and discussed the issue at length.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met twice with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr on the issue last weekend, once on the sidelines of the Somalia conference in London and once on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria conference in Tunis. The State Department also sent a delegation of lawyers to Tunis, an official said on background basis.
According to sources close to the negotiations, in the end the key Egyptian figures who facilitated the deal to were Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Justice Minister Mohamed Abdel Aziz Ibrahim. In fact, U.S. officials believed they finalized the outlines of a deal with those two leaders last week, whereby the judge presiding over the NGO trials would lift the travel ban when the trials opened on Feb. 26.
When the time came, that presiding judge refused to follow through, according to sources, and Ibrahim stepped in to remove him from the case, effectively placing Ibrahim himself in charge of the decision. Ibrahim then lifted the travel ban. The U.S. side agreed to pay $5 million in "bail" money as part of the arrangement.
Two Republican senators who rarely have any nice words about the administration's foreign policy, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), also pitched in. They traveled to Cairo last weekend with Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and John Hoeven (R-ND) and met with a series of Egyptian interlocutors, including Tantawi and representatives of Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The FJP, which holds the largest share of seats in the Egyptian Parliament, issued a public statement on the heels of the McCain-Graham visit, which said the party was unhappy with the current NGO law in Egypt, a relic of the Mubarak era. The FJP statement acknowledged that the foreign NGO workers had played a constructive role in Egypt over the years and described the prosecutions of the NGO workers as "politically motivated."
In a statement Thursday, the four U.S. senators acknowledged the Muslim Brotherhood's cooperation. "We are encouraged by the constructive role played over the past week by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Their statement of February 20 was important in helping to resolve the recent crisis," the senators said.
The American lawmakers had help from the Senate floor, where McCain and Graham were working hard this week to prevent a vote on an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that would have cut off all U.S. aid to Egypt immediately. McCain and Graham successfully prevented the amendment from reaching the Senate floor, but were unsure how long they could continue to do so before affecting other Senate business. This created a sense of urgency that was communicated directly to the Egyptians.
David Kramer, president of Freedom House, said in an interview today that the FJP statement was important because it allowed the SCAF and elements of Egypt's civilian government to lift the travel ban without fearing a domestic political backlash.
"It provided political cover to the authorities that if they took the step they took today, the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn't attack them in the press," he said.
But Kramer emphasized that the government's persecution of NGOs is ongoing. The cases against the Americans haven't been dismissed, and the SCAF has failed to provide an open and transparent system for domestic civil society to operate.
"No Egyptians got on a plane today, just the foreigners," Kramer noted. Several Egyptian Freedom House staffers are still charged with crimes. "This is a very important first step, but there are many steps along the way here. We have to get the investigations closed down. We have to be allowed to reopen and engage in our activities, like we were doing before. The pressure needs to be maintained."
"Today's action helps take away one element of tension. It wasn't helpful to have the focus be on Americans imprisoned in Egypt," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch. "That was taking the focus away from the real problem, which is the Egyptian government's assault on its own civil society."
The threat of a cutoff of U.S. aid to Egypt still remains, Malinowski noted. That prospect was always based on the most recent U.S. appropriations bill, which requires Secretary Clinton to certify that Egypt is making progress on, among other things, protecting freedom of association and moving toward true democracy.
"This is not enough for Hillary Clinton to certify progress under that law, although it might make it easier for her to use her national security waiver," Malinowski argued. A decision by Clinton could be put off until April, he added.
But the crisis has at least suggested that Congress and the Islamists in the new Egyptian legislature can work together, despite their differences in outlook.
"The Muslim Brotherhood will be the leading organization politically. It is up to them to create an environment where the world feels welcome," Graham said on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon. "Maybe we've learned our lesson, that you can't just have partnerships without basic principles. And so, we look forward to working with the Egyptian parliament and people."
The U.S. government has worked hard to find a new location in Iraq for the thousands of members of the Iranian dissident group Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization that is being kicked out of its home at Camp Ashraf by the Iraqi government.
But now the State Department has to answer aggressive charges that the new home for the MEK, a former U.S. military base called Camp Liberty, is a "concentration camp" with horrid conditions. What's more, these charges are coming from senior U.S. politicians and experts, led by former New York mayor and presidential candidate Rudi Giuliani.
"This is not a relocation camp. I have seen relocation camps. I know what relocation camps look like. And I know what jails look like. This isn't a jail. This is a concentration camp. That's what it is. This is a concentration camp. Let's call it what it is," Giuliani said at a Feb. 26 "conference" held under the rubric of something called the Global Initiative for Democracy, an advocacy group that seems to be very interested in the MEK issue.
"This is worse than any facility I've ever seen having been at one time in charge of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and another time responsible for the New York City jail system, Rikers Island, materially better than this. This is a concentration camp."
The State Department worked with the United Nations to prepare Camp Liberty, now renamed Camp Hurriya (Arabic for "freedom"), to get it ready for the MEK, but the MEK has been reluctant to move there. The first tranche of about 400 MEK members started relocating this month.
Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz, who was on the panel with Guliani at the Feb. 26 conference, wholeheartedly agreed with his take on the conditions at Camp Liberty, according to a press release put out by the Global Initiative for Democracy.
"This is a scandal. This is a fraud; a fraud not involving money, but a fraud involving threats to human life. What we need immediately is a commission of inquiry to determine how this fraud was perpetrated," Dershowitz said. "Who certified, who approved that hell hole, that garbage dump? Who said that it met United Nations standards? Somebody is responsible for perpetrating that fraud and for getting 400 innocent people to risk their lives and their health to be exposed to that kind of trash and that kind of hazard to their health. We have to get to the bottom of this."
Neither man ever called Camp Liberty a "concentration camp" or a "garbage dump" when it housed hundreds of U.S. soldiers for years during the Iraq war.
Also on that panel were several former high-ranking officials who have been on the roster of the MEK's often-paid supporters in Washington, including former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, and former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats on the National Intelligence Council Glenn Carle.
Other speakers at the conference included former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, former U.S. Ambassador to the UK Philip Lader, and former policy advisor at the Treasury Department's office of terrorism and financial intelligence Avi Jorisch.
Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Ted Poe (R-TX) both questioned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the MEK at Wednesday's hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, with Poe directly raising Guliani's accusation that the new location amounted to a "concentration camp."
Clinton didn't comment on the "concentration camp" charge and simply emphasized that the U.S. was working hard to safely relocate the MEK to Camp Liberty, keep the Iraqi government from harassing the MEK, and ensure that the U.N. monitors the camp and provides help for refugees. She also said that if the MEK really wants off the list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTO), it should get with the program at Camp Liberty.
"Congressman, given the ongoing efforts to relocate the residents, MEK cooperation in the successful and peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf, the MEK's main paramilitary base, will be a key factor in any decision regarding the MEK's FTO status," Clinton said.
The United States and North Korea have each issued statements about the results of last week's meetings in China, but the two sides seem to be reading from two different sheets of paper.
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 Feb. 23 and 24, including North Korea's top nuclear negotiator Kim Gye Gwan. These were the first U.S.-DPRK direct talks since the December death of Kim Jong Il. Today, the State Department sent out its statement on the meetings as well as the DPRK's official news agency's readout of what was agreed. Apparently, something was lost in translation, because the two readouts just don't match.
"[T]he DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities," the U.S. statement said. "The DPRK has also agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities."
Regarding the pending deal to give North Korea 240,000 tons of U.S. food assistance, the U.S. readout explained, "We have agreed to meet with the DPRK to finalize administrative details necessary to move forward with our proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance along with the intensive monitoring required for the delivery of such assistance."
The United States has always maintained that nuclear negotiations and food assistance were not linked and the Obama administration must appear it is not being lured into the time-honored tradition of what critics see as "bribing" North Korea to talk. But the State Department admitted last week that the food-assistance issue might come up during the nuclear talks, and in fact, it did.
The State Department didn't say anything meaningful about sanctions on North Korea in its statement, only promising to increase people-to-people exchanges in areas such as sports and pledging that "U.S. sanctions against the DPRK are not targeted against the livelihood of the DPRK people."
And what about Pyongyang's interpretation?
If you read the North Korean statement on the meetings, which hasn't yet been posted on the KCNA website but was sent around to reporters Wednesday morning, you would have a somewhat different idea of what happened in Beijing.
"The U.S. promised to offer 240,000 metric tons of
nutritional assistance with the prospect of additional food assistance, for
which both the DPRK and the U.S. would finalize the administrative details in
the immediate future," the North Koreans said. "Once the six-party talks are
resumed, priority will be given to the discussion of issues concerning the
lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light water reactors."
The United States hasn't publicly discussed the idea of providing light-water nuclear reactors to North Korea since the KEDO project terminated its activity in 2006, due to what U.S. officials say is North Korea's failure to live up to the deal under which KEDO was begun.
As recently as Feb. 27, the State Department was insisting that no decision has been made on providing food assistance to North Korea, which is opposed by many in Congress.
"As they always do, the North Korean side also raised the nutritional assistance, so we did discuss that," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said about the Beijing meetings. "As you know, the United States does not link these issues. There's no deal to be had here. But we did continue to discuss the questions that the U.S. has with regard to need, with regard to how we might monitor nutritional assistance if we are to go forward with it. So no decisions have been made either on the six-party talks side or on the nutritional assistance side."
Former Pentagon Asia official Dan Blumenthal, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the confusion over the meeting was due to a lack of a clear strategy for achieving U.S. goals in North Korea beyond just scheduling more talks.
He also said that North Korea is never likely to give up its nuclear weapons, which is the stated U.S. goal, so the basis for the negotiations is flawed from the outset.
"The DPRK statement is just the public rhetoric part of their strategy, which is to get accepted by the U.S. and others as a nuclear power and meanwhile to extract other concessions that alleviate their economic problems," Blumenthal said.
But other analysts saw the deal as an incremental step forward and left open the possibility for real progress.
"These steps are modestly significant," said Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution. "They could indeed be an initial step on a path towards serious negotiations, negotiations that Pyongyang scuttled by its own actions. Or they could simply be a ploy to get nutritional assistance and meddle in South Korean politics. North Korea's record suggests the latter, but we shall see. I think it is safe to say that no one in Washington, Seoul, or Tokyo is holding their breath."
UPDATE: A senior administration official gave more detail on the food assistance discussions in a Wednesday background briefing with reporters. The United States put forward an offer of 20,000 tons of food assistance per month, but not the rice and grain that the North Korean government wanted, because that could be easily diverted to the military.
“And we’re talking about foods that would be appropriate for young children, in particular those under five or six years old, pregnant woman as well because we want to make sure we address the sort of the first 1,000 days as the administration has wanted to focus on,” the official said. “We’re going to have things like corn-soy blend, we will have vegetable oil, some pulses, and then there will be probably a modest amount of the ready-to-use therapeutic foods depending upon the number of children that we see with acute malnutrition.”
The official explained that monitoring mechanisms would have to be firmly in place before food aid can begin to flow. “If we are successful in finalizing the details that I’ve just laid out, this will be the most comprehensively monitored and managed program since the U.S. began assistance to the DPRK in the mid 1990s,” the official said.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) asked all 435 members of Congress to join her at a meeting at the Syrian Embassy in Washington Tuesday, but in the end, she was the only one who attended.
"I invite you to join me, as Members of Congress, at the Syrian Embassy on Tuesday, February 28, 2012, to ask for an immediate cease-fire, a resumption of international mediation, and a peaceful end to this conflict," Jackson Lee wrote to all lawmakers Feb. 27. "We will show our support for the Syrian people and our rejection of the senseless killing of unarmed innocent civilians. This will be a strong diplomatic and symbolic gesture from the U.S. Congress to Syria."
"We will meet with the Syrian chargé d'affaires Zouheir Jabbour at 10:30 a.m. Together, we will express our disapproval of actions taken by President Bashar al Asad's troops against the people of Syria," read the letter, which identified Jackson Lee as the co-chair of Congressional Children's Caucus.
Jackson Lee attended the meeting, but no other lawmakers joined her, her spokesperson told The Cable.
Regardless, Jackson Lee considered the meeting a success because she was able to deliver a letter to Jabbour, this time as a "senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee," that questioned "whether the regime of President Bashar al Assad, whose actions unfortunately have veered into a realm ranging from undesirable to brutal, can handle a growing problem."
She made seven specific demands of Assad in the letter, namely that he: cease fire and cease the violence of the Syrian government, establish a safe camp for all woman and children, allow immediate access for the Syrian Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross, allow immediate access for Poland to remove Western journalists stuck in Homs as well as the bodies of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, allow the removal of all other wounded, make immediate provisions for the safe arrival of medical care and food, and "for President Assad to step down as President IMMEDIATEDLY." (Emphasis in original.)
Jackson Lee also handed Jabbour an identical letter to give to Assad himself, and another copy to give to Syria's Ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha. That copy might be tough to deliver because Moustapha suddenly moved to Beijing amid an FBI investigation into the embassy's alleged spying on Syrian Americans for the purpose of harassing them and their families.
So why didn't any other members of Congress join Lee? Despite the tough tone of her letter, some offices thought that Lee was simply grandstanding and that meeting with the Syrian embassy officials sent the wrong message at the wrong time.
"Essentially she's allowing herself to be used as a propaganda tool by the Assad regime," one senior congressional aide told The Cable. "It's hard to see how show your support for the people of Syria by legitimizing a regime that continues to brutalize them."
The State Department has begun coordinating with Syria's neighbors to prepare for the handling of President Bashar al-Assad's extensive weapons of mass destruction if and when his regime collapses, The Cable has learned.
This week, the State Department sent a diplomatic demarche to Syria's neighbors Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, warning them about the possibility of Syria's WMDs crossing their borders and offering U.S. government help in dealing with the problem, three Obama administration officials confirmed to The Cable. For concerned parties both inside and outside the U.S. government, the demarche signifies that the United States is increasingly developing plans to deal with the dangers of a post-Assad Syria -- while simultaneously highlighting the lack of planning for how to directly bring about Assad's downfall.
Syria is believed to have a substantial chemical weapons program, which includes mustard gas and sophisticated nerve agents, such as sarin gas, as well as biological weapons. Syria has also refused IAEA requests to make available facilities that were part of its nuclear weapons program and may still be in operation.
The State Department declined to provide access to any officials to discuss the private diplomatic communication on the record, such as the author of the demarche Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman. In a meeting with reporters earlier this year, Countryman expressed confidence that the United States knows where Syria's WMD stockpiles are, but warned that they could become a very serious security issue for Syria and the region going forward.
"We have ideas as to the quantity and we have ideas as to where they are," Countryman said. "We wish some of the neighbors of Syria to be on the lookout... When you get a change of regime in Syria, it matters what are the conditions -- chaotic or orderly."
Today, in response to inquiries from The Cable, a State Department official offered the following statement:
"The U.S. and our allies are monitoring Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. These weapons' presence in Syria undermines peace and security in the Middle East, and we have long called on the Syrian government to destroy its chemicals weapons arsenal and join the Chemical Weapons Convention," the State Department official said. "We believe Syria's chemical weapons stockpile remains under Syrian government control, and we will continue to work closely with like-minded countries to prevent proliferation of Syria's chemical weapons program."
The demarche made four specific points, according to other U.S. officials who offered a fuller account to The Cable. It communicated the U.S. government's recognition that there is a highly active chemical warfare program in Syria, which is complemented by ballistic-missile delivery capability. It further emphasized that that any potential political transition in Syria could raise serious questions about the regime's control over proliferation-sensitive material.
Third, the State Department wanted Syria's neighbors to know that should the Assad regime fall, the security of its WMD stockpile -- as well as its control over conventional weapons like MANPADS (shoulder-fired rocket launchers) -- could come into question and could pose a serious threat to regional security. Lastly, the demarche emphasized that the U.S. government stands ready to support neighboring countries to provide border-related security cooperation.
"It's essentially a recognition of the danger to the regional and international community of the stockpiles that the regime possesses and the importance of working with countries, given the potential fall of the regime, to prevent the proliferation of these very sensitive weapons outside of Syria's border," one administration official said. "It's an exponentially more dangerous program than Libya. We are talking about legitimate WMDs here -- this isn't Iraq. The administration is really concerned about loose WMDs. It's one of the few things you could put on the agenda and do something about without planning the fall of the regime."
The administration is also working closely with the Jordanians on the issue. A Jordanian military delegation was at the Pentagon Thursday to meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
In addition to the danger of proliferation, there is a concern that Assad could actually use his WMDs if his situation becomes desperate.
"The WMD program is in play now, and that's important because it highlights the innate danger that the existence of this regime poses to U.S. security and regional interests," the administration official said. "[The demarche] puts Syria's neighbors on notice and it reflects the recognition that a dangerous Assad regime is willing to do anything to save its own skin. If they are willing to kill the country to save the regime, they might be willing to do a great deal more damage throughout the region."
Some officials inside and outside the administration see the WMD activity as helpful, but lament that such a high degree of planning is not taking place on the issue of how to precipitate the downfall of the Assad regime as quickly and as safely as possible.
Over 70 countries met in Tunis today to develop a unified message on the transition of power in Syria and urge the Assad regime to allow humanitarian access. The Saudi delegation actually walked out of the meeting, complaining of "inactivity" and urging the international community to arm the Syrian opposition.
The Obama administration has consistently rejected calls by the Syrian National Council and others to prepare for a military intervention in Syria and no real strategy exists internally to force Assad from power, another administration official said.
"Our strategic calculus can't be solely about what comes after Assad without taking a hard look at how to bring about Assad's downfall as safely as possible," said this official. "The reality is, at some point, there will be a recognition you can't plan for a post-Assad scenario without planning how to shape the downfall itself. You can't separate the two."
Concern about a gap in planning for how to oust the Assad regime is shared by some in Congress, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who issued a statement today urging the administration to start directly aiding the Syrian rebels and protecting Syrian civilians.
"Unfortunately, speeches and meetings by themselves will do nothing to stop the unacceptable slaughter in Syria, which is growing worse by the day," the senators said. "We remain deeply concerned that our international diplomacy risks becoming divorced from the reality on the ground in Syria, which is now an armed conflict between Assad's forces and the people of Syria who are struggling to defend themselves against indiscriminate attacks."
In her prepared remarks in Tunis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she supported more sanctions on the Assad regime but she declined to endorse any direct help to the Syrian opposition without the consent of the Syrian government, saying only, "We all need to look hard at what more we can do."
Candidate Barack Obama promised to end the time-honored American practice of appointing ambassadors who have no experience in foreign policy, but President Obama has completely ignored that promise, appointing fundraisers to dozens of ambassadorships all over the world.
Today, the State Department revealed that another fundraiser turned ambassador ran her embassy into the ground ... only to return to fundraising and leave the State Department to pick up the pieces.
According to a new State Department inspector general's report on the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas, Ambassador Nicole Avant presided over "an extended period of dysfunctional leadership and mismanagement, which has caused problems throughout the embassy" since she was appointed by the president in 2009. Prior to being America's envoy in the Caribbean, Avant was Southern California finance co-chairwoman of Obama's presidential campaign and vice president of Interior Music Publishing.
According to her glowingly positive Wikipedia page, Avant spent her time in the Bahamas "focused on five priority initiatives: Education, Alternative Energy, Economic and Small Business Development, Women's Empowerment and Raising awareness of the challenges facing people with disabilities."
But according to the State Department's internal investigation, Avant was away from the embassy an inordinate amount of time -- mainly shuttling back and forth to her home in Los Angeles -- and when she was in town, she worked from her residence most of the day.
Avant was absent from the embassy 276 days between September 2009 and November 2011, including 102 "personal" days and 77 "work travel" days to the United States, of which only 23 were on official orders.
"Her extensive travel out of country and preference to work from the Ambassador's residence for a significant portion of the work day contributed to a perception of indifference," the report states. "The frequent absences of the Ambassador contributed to poor mission management."
Avant was out of touch partly because she didn't interact often with the State Department or anyone else in Washington, according to the inspector general. She left that to her deputy chief of mission, whom the report identified as also being poor at management and administration.
"The Ambassador had not had frequent policy-level interaction with the Department or other Washington agencies. At the beginning of her tenure, she relied unduly on her former DCM to attend to day-to-day contacts with the desk and other offices in the Department," says the report. "Interviews in Washington likewise revealed that the front office of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and other Washington agencies were not in regular contact with the Ambassador about the conduct of her mission. This lack of regular contact contributed to the Ambassador's sense of isolation from the Department."
Avant did take several steps to establish the embassy's equal employment opportunity program -- but not until the inspector general's visit. The embassy's program for young Foreign Service officers was neglected, critical security upgrades were not made, and the embassy paid rent on a vacant office for two years.
One might think there aren't important issues to deal with at a tropical post like the Bahamas. But the IG begs to differ, and made clear that the 154 American and 61 locally hired staff need good leadership.
"The Bahamas is a critical partner in ongoing efforts to ensure the security of the south-east flank of the United States. As it fights drug and human trafficking with U.S. and international support, the Bahamas seeks to maintain its status as a global financial center and as an important tourist destination," the report states.
Under Avant's tenure, it goes on, "cables written in the past year show little political reporting or analysis on international crime, drug smuggling, and illegal migration or on prevention of terrorism."
The inspectors visited the embassy in September and October of 2011. Avant resigned in November.
Since resigning, Avant has been active on the campaign trail. According to a Jan. 31 White House pool report, she joined Michelle Obama at a Beverly Hills residence for a fundraiser along with her husband, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Saranados, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steve Bing, Quincy Jones, Harvey Weinstein, and other celebrities.
A Feb. 15 pool report spotted her dining with Obama at a $35,800 per plate dinner that included George Clooney, Jim Belushi, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa.
Avant is only the latest fundraiser cum ambassador who caused trouble for the boss. Fundraiser/Ambassador Howard Gutman caused a controversy in Belgium last year when he made statements appearing to blame Israel for anti-Semitism.
And fundraiser/ambassador Cynthia Stroum left the U.S. Embassy in Luxembourg in a state of dysfunction after creating an environment that was ""aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating," according to a Feb. 2011 State Department investigation.
If the Obama administration is looking for a new envoy to the Bahamas who can right the ship, your humble Cable guy would like to put forth himself for the assignment ... we promise not to use up our personal days.
The first even "Friends of Syria" meeting Friday in Tunis will focus on ensuring humanitarian access and a possible short-term ceasefire, according to State Department officials traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in London.
Clinton had several meetings with European and Arab leaders on the sidelines of the London conference on Somalia to prepare for "Friends of Syria" event, where dozens of countries will meet to determine what steps the international community can take to bring relief to the communities under siege from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"There is a lot of concern, of course, about what's happening in places like Homs, the horrific conditions in which people [find themselves], and how do we get the right type of humanitarian and medical assistance [into Syria] that people need," a State Department official told reporters traveling with Clinton in London.
"And [there is] general agreement that while all of us have been working with various humanitarian well-known organizations, U.N. organizations on the ground, that the real challenge is the access issue. And it is going to be up to the Syrian government to be -- the Syrian authorities, the Syrian regime -- to respond to the international community's real commitment to provide the type of assistance."
The Tunis meeting should result in concrete proposal for speeding humanitarian and medical assistance to the civilians inside Syria, but all would require the agreement of the Assad regime, the official said.
The second main focus of the Tunis meeting will be to coalesce around a plan to transition toward democracy in Syria. Members of the Syrian National Council, the opposition group composed mostly of people living outside Syria, has its own plan for transition that it will present at the Tunis meeting. That plan and the Arab League backed plan for transition are not mutually exclusive, the State Department official said.
"Everybody is backing the Arab League transition plan who's at the conference tomorrow, but it's incumbent upon the Syrian National Council to talk about how they would translate that transition plan into action on the ground and for them to articulate it in a compelling way that's comprehensible, understandable to Syrians inside and out," said the official.
The third focus of the Tunis meeting will be how the international community can coordinate sanctions to bring maximum pressure and isolation on the Assad regime.
How does the "Friends of Syria" group plan to incentivize Assad to go along with any of these ideas? According to a report by the Associated Press, Clinton and the other leaders are considering issuing Assad a 72-hour ultimatum whereby he would have to agree to a ceasefire and grant humanitarian access or face as yet unspecified additional penalties. The ceasefire could be granted in 2 hour per day increments, as the International Committee for the Red Cross has suggested.
"Clinton met Thursday in London with foreign ministers and senior officials from about a dozen countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates," the AP reported.
Representatives from Syria's internal opposition groups will not be at the conference. One administration official told The Cable that Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had urged in internal discussions that opposition council leaders from Damascus and Homs be included in the Tunis meeting but ultimately they were not invited.
The Obama administration has focused on interacting with the external opposition and avoiding direct contact with the Free Syrian Army, which is working closely with the local rebel councils inside Syria, the administration official said.
But the State Department official speaking with reporters in London said the administration was confident that the SNC was adequately representing the array of opposition groups inside and outside Syria.
"It's a very complicated political situation that they face that the Syrian opposition members, whether they're inside or outside, have a hard time communicating with each other given the restrictions that are put on to the -- onto the Internet, onto movement, given the horrific conditions under which people are living and operating inside Syria," the State Department official said. "The opposition has done a fairly good job of reaching out, being able to synthesize views from across Syria. And I think that all of us are favorably impressed with the direction in which they're moving. But we'll hear from them tomorrow in terms of specific needs."
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is on his way back from Russia after meeting with outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in anticipation of a coming congressional debate on giving Russia Permanent Normalized Trade Relations (PNTR) status.
The visit was closely coordinated with the Obama administration, according to a Baucus aide. Baucus is anticipating a debate over granting Russia PNTR, which would also require the repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law, sometime this spring or summer. By then, Russia will be a full member of the World Trade Organization and U.S. businesses would be disadvantaged from doing business in Russia if the PNTR issue is not resolved, according to Baucus.
But the Baucus camp was keen to stress that the senator's focus went well beyond economic access for American companies.
"Baucus wanted to learn more and prepare himself for this year's debate to prepare himself and other members as he did last year with Colombia before the free trade debate," his aide told The Cable. "Baucus definitely stressed democracy and human rights concerns with Medvedev as he did with several other senior Russian officials on the trip. He also met at length with civil society activists -- democracy, human rights and environmental activists -- as well as another meeting with leading transparency and anti-corruption advocates."
Some GOP offices want to link the issues of human rights and corruption in Russia to the granting of PNTR status. Those offices are pushing for passage of Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, named for the anti-corruption lawyer who was allegedly tortured and died in a Russian prison exactly two years ago today.
These Republicans -- who include House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) -- want passage of the Magnitsky bill to be the cost of repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which prevents Russia from getting PNTR status. The administration would prefer not to link Magnitsky to this trade status, because it would cause the Russians to take retaliatory measures against the U.S. in other areas of bilateral cooperation. Administration officials are proposing a fund to support a new democracy and human rights foundation in Russia instead, but Republicans are cool on that idea.
The Russians staunchly oppose the Magnitsky bill. In fact, the Russian government is moving forward with the prosecution of Magnitsky on criminal tax charges, even though he is dead.
In a press release before his trip, Baucus argued that granting PNTR status for Russia could result in a doubling of U.S. exports to Russia, which now stand at about $9 billion per year. He also argued that a package of concessions Russia made to the United States before being invited to join the WTO would result in benefits for U.S. animal and agricultural industries and will result in Russia tamping down its own domestic agricultural subsidies.
"Opening doors overseas in countries like Russia will propel our economic recovery forward and create jobs across the United States," Baucus said. "Holding Russia to its promises as it enters the WTO and seeking a greater share of the Russian market is a one-way economic benefit for the United States and an absolute no-brainer."
Baucus' home state of Montana is a major beef exporter and Russia is currently the fifth largest importer of American beef. Baucus has touted Russia's agreement to reduce beef tariffs as part of its WTO accession.
On Feb. 20, in addition to Medvedev, Baucus met with First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, Russia's top official on economic and trade issues, and Minister of Economic Development Elvira Nabiullina. On Monday, Baucus also met with Russian Minister of Agriculture Yelena Skrynnik and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"Meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, Baucus pushed for Russia to reevaluate the positions it has taken on Syria and Iran. He asked what steps Russia is willing to take to halt the violence in Syria, given that every effort to date has failed, and discussed Russia's response to Iran's nuclear program," his office said Tuesday. There was no word about Lavrov's response to those questions.
President Barack Obama will deliver remarks at the AIPAC conference March 4, one day before he sits down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, a reprise of the difficult meeting they held there last year.
"We are pleased to announce that the president will address this year's annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C., on Sunday March 4. The president welcomes this opportunity to speak to the strengths of the special bonds between Israel and the United States," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
He confirmed that Obama and Netanyahu will meet March 5. The order of events will be opposite of last year, when Obama spoke the day after his tense and awkward meeting with Netanyahu in the Oval Office, where Netanyahu appeared to lecture Obama on Israeli security.
Obama will speak to AIPAC Sunday morning, the two leaders will meet Monday, and then Netanyahu will address the conference Monday evening.
Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres will speak at AIPAC, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), President of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former member of Congress Jane Harman, CNN Contributor Paul Begala, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Fox News contributor Liz Cheney, and editor of The Weekly Standard William Kristol.
Carney also commented on the visit of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to Israel this past weekend, where he met with Netanyahu and a host of other senior Israeli officials, including National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, who coordinates the Iran portfolio, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and Military Intelligence head Aviv Kochavi.
Carney didn't say explicitly that Donilon asked the Israelis to hold off on attacking Iran, but his message was along those lines.
"The president has said -- that there is time and space for diplomacy to work, for the effect of sanctions to result in a change in Iranian behavior, an agreement by Iran to live up to its obligations, to engage in negotiations and resolve this matter peacefully," said Carney. "We do not, of course, as we've said many times, take any option off the table. And that was the context of the discussions that Mr. Donilon had with his counterparts in Israel."
According to readouts of the Donilon meetings in the Israeli press, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials told Donilon they were displeased with the Obama administration's recent press outreach regarding Iran, especially the Feb. 19 CNN interview given by Joint Chiefs' Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, during which Dempsey warned that the risk of Iranian retaliation for an Israeli strike on Iran would outweigh the benefits.
"That's the question with which we all wrestle, and the reason that we think that it's not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran. I mean, that's been our counsel to our allies, the Israelis, well-known, well-documented," Dempsey said. "And we also know -- or believe we know -- that the Iranian regime has not decided that they will embark on the effort to weaponize their nuclear capability."
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is expected to arrive in Israel Feb. 23 for a range of meetings.
Now that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has lifted his hold on Obama confidant Mark Lippert to become the next top Pentagon official for Asia, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has stepped in with a hold of his own, over the issue of selling F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan.
"Earlier today Senator Cornyn placed a hold on the nomination of Mark W. Lippert, a former aide to President Obama, to be assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs," said Cornyn spokesman Drew Brandewie. "In November Senator Cornyn sent a letter to the president requesting a plan to address Taiwan's aging fleet of fighter jets. The administration finally responded yesterday, but failed to adequately address Senator Cornyn's underlying concern."
The Lippert hold, first reported by the Washington Free Beacon, is not the first time Cornyn has used his power to hold nominees to press his advocacy for selling F-16s to Taiwan. Last July, Cornyn held up the nomination of Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to make a decision on selling the fighter plane to Taiwan.
In October, the administration decided to sell Taiwan upgrade packages for its aging fleet of F-15 A/B model planes but the administration never said whether it would sell Taiwan the newer, more advanced planes, claiming it is still under consideration.
At Lippert's November confirmation hearing, Cornyn pressed Lippert on the issue (watch the video here) and then introduced an amendment to the defense authorization bill that seeks to force the administration to sell Taiwan new F-16s. That amendment had been voted down in the Senate once before.
Cornyn then wrote a letter threatening to hold the Lippert nomination unless he gets some satisfaction on the issue.
"I remain disappointed by your de facto denial of Taiwan's request to 66 new F-16 C/D fighter aircraft, and I believe it sends a damaging message to nations in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond that the U.S. is willing to abandon our friends in the face of Communist China's intimidation tactics," Cornyn wrote. "I hope to be able to support the confirmation of this nominee [Lippert]. However, I ask that you decide on a near term course of action to address Taiwan's looming fighter shortfall and provide me with the specific actions you plan to take."
In the administration's Feb. 16 response to Cornyn, acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller wrote, "We believe the F-16 A/B upgrade effectively meets Taiwan's current needs."
Miller would be Lippert's boss at OSD if Lippert does eventually get confirmed. Miller also faces a confirmation vote in the Senate as he seeks to permanently replace the now-departed Michèle Flournoy.
Fifty-six leading conservative foreign-policy experts wrote an open letter Friday to U.S. President Barack Obama calling on him to directly aid the Syrian opposition and protect the lives of Syrian civilians.
"For eleven months now, the Syrian people have been dying on a daily basis at the hands of their government as they seek to topple the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. As the recent events in the city of Homs-in which hundreds of Syrians have been killed in a matter of days-have shown, Assad will stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power," wrote the experts.
"Unless the United States takes the lead and acts, either individually or in concert with like-minded nations, thousands of additional Syrian civilians will likely die, and the emerging civil war in Syria will likely ignite wider instability in the Middle East."
The letter was organized jointly by the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, both conservative policy organizations in Washington, D.C. Signees included Max Boot, Paul Bremer, Elizabeth Cheney, Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, John Hannah, William Inboden, William Kristol, Michael Ledeen, Clifford May, Robert McFarlane, Martin Peretz, Danielle Pletka, John Podhoretz, Stephen Rademaker, Karl Rove, Randy Scheunemann, Dan Senor, James Woolsey, Dov Zakheim, and Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council.
The letter calls on Obama to immediately establish safe zones within Syrian territory, establish contacts with and provide assistance to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), give communications and logistical assistance to the Syrian opposition, and enact further sanctions on the Syrian regime and its leaders.
The letter comes one day before the first "Friends of Syria" contact-group meeting in Tunisia and on the same day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton in Washington.
On Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the government sponsored violence in Syria, but the letter argues that multilateral efforts to protect civilians in Syria have thus far failed.
"The Syrian people are asking for international assistance," it reads. "It is apparent that American leadership is required to ensure the quickest end to the Assad regime's brutal reign, and to clearly show the Syrian people that, as you said on February 4, 2012, the people of the free world stand with them as they seek to realize their aspirations."
Read the full letter after the jump:
A group of 32 senators from both parties unveiled a new Senate resolution Thursday that would establish the sense of the Congress that containing a nuclear Iran is not an option.
The resolution, which will be formally introduced later today, "strongly supports U.S. policy to prevent the Iranian government from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and rejects any policy that would rely on efforts to ‘contain' a nuclear weapons capable Iran," and "urges the president to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat."
A group of senators held a press conference Thursday on Capitol Hill to explain the thinking behind the resolution and reinforce its bipartisan character, including Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Bob Casey (D-PA), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
"There are so many things that we disagree on, but we found something we can be united about and I hope the American people will take comfort in the fact that Republican and Democratic senators are joining forces to stand behind President Obama on one very important issue," said Graham. "We agree with you and we have your back Mr. President. President Obama is absolutely right that it is absolutely unacceptable for the Iranian theocracy to obtain nuclear capability."
Lieberman emphasized that he doesn't want to foreclose diplomatic options, but said that if Obama decided to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, he would have strong bipartisan support in Congress.
"I know that containment might have been viable for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but it's not going to work with the current fanatical Islamist regime in Tehran," said Lieberman, referring to Iran's sponsorship of international terrorism, its record of proliferation, and its statements calling for the destruction of Israel. He called containment of a nuclear Iran a "dangerous and deadly illusion."
Casey, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East Subcommittee, said the resolution is meant to address what he sees as a lack of clarity as to American policy regarding the possibility of living with a nuclear Iran.
"[The resolution] makes it very clear that containment is not good enough, that containment is not a fallback position here. If we say we're going to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon, we have to mean it," said Casey, adding that there needed to be a greater sense of urgency on the issue as well.
Ayotte referred to the Thursday morning testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who told her that Iran represented a "grave threat" to U.S. national security and the security of U.S. allies.
Senators from both parties said Thursday that a diplomatic solution was still the goal and they believed the sanctions on Iran were working, but that a containment strategy was less preferable than a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if all else fails.
"This is a deadly serious moment," said Coons. "We hope for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution, but we are determined to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability."
The senators sought to present their resolution as perfectly in line with the administration's stance. "I'm not here to criticize the president... the only thing I would say is ‘Do it faster if you can,'" said Graham.
What's not clear is what, exactly, would constitute Iran crossing the red line of achieving a "nuclear capability," in the eyes of the administration, or for that matter, in the eyes of the Congress.
"To me, nuclear weapons capability means that they are capable of breaking out and producing a nuclear weapon -- in other words, that they have all the components necessary to do that," Lieberman said. "It's a standard that is higher than saying ‘The red line is when they actually have nuclear weapons.'"
The resolution itself currently has 16 Democratic sponsors and 16 Republican sponsors. Behind the scenes, there were intense negotiations over the language to create a resolution that was acceptable to the broadest range of senators.
Graham admitted that an earlier version had included a clause, later removed, that would have affirmed that the United States has the power and capability to prevent the government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability. That clause was removed in order to build a bipartisan consensus.
"This is not an authorization for military force... if military force is the option to be chosen, that is a debate for another day, that is another discussion," he said.
At the press conference, Graham showed poster-sized photos of an Iranian missile in a parade with the words "Israel must be uprooted and erased from history" written on it. He then showed another poster-sized photo of an Iranian banner saying, "Israel should be wiped out of the face of the world."
"They could work on their grammar, but we all get the message," Graham said. "What we're all saying in a bipartisan fashion that we don't want to contain or contend with a nuclear Iran because we think the whole world would go into darkness."
On Friday, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton will meet in Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss Iran's letter proposing a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries, a letter that Ashton has already said does not contain enough new concessions to justify a new meeting.
At Thursday's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that a more formal response from all the P5+1 countries would be coming and that Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman had held two rounds of consultations about the letter.
"I don't expect we're going to have a formal reaction to the letter before early next week," said Nuland. "What we want to do is not only react to the words on the page, but be in agreement about what the implications are for the potential for diplomacy further on."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is leading a congressional delegation to Egypt this weekend and will meet with the head of the Egyptian military in an effort to resolve the crisis over the prosecution of American NGO workers in Cairo, he said Wednesday.
McCain said he will meet with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a man he has known for 25 years, but insisted he was "not Bill Richardson," the former New Mexico governor who has periodically served as an unofficial envoy, swooping in to foreign capitals to rescue Americans held by hostile governments.
McCain explained that he had no intention of demanding the NGO workers' immediate release or negotiating with the Egyptian government directly. Instead, he plans to express the seriousness of the issue to Egyptian military leaders and explain that the organizations are not sowing unrest, as they have been accused of doing, but rather helping Egypt develop civic institutions. He will also try to explain the congressional politics of the moment and the real possibility that Congress will cut off U.S. aid to Egypt over the crisis.
McCain said he realizes that the generals may not be in control of the situation and may not be able to solve the NGO crisis even if they wanted to. That opinion is shared by the State Department, including Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, as The Cable reported last week. That's why McCain is also seeking meetings with Egyptian parliamentarians, civic leaders, and representatives of liberal, secular, and even Islamic groups.
That analysis seemed to be reinforced last weekend when Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey traveled to Cairo and was unable to secure the release of the NGO workers despite meeting with Tantawi for over six hours. There's a realization in the U.S. government and in Congress that the Egyptian government can't make concessions during or immediately after a high-level U.S. visit because the optics of such a move would be politically damaging for them domestically, multiple Senate aides said.
McCain said the issue was probably being driven by Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga, a longtime Mubarak loyalist suspected to be driving the effort to prosecute the aid workers.
McCain is the chairman of the board of the International Republican Institute, one of the three U.S. NGOs affected by the prosecutions. The others are the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. Several Egyptian NGOs are also being targeted by the Egyptian government.
IRI President Lorne Craner testified at the House Foreign Affairs Committee's hearing on the situation in Egypt Thursday morning.
"Taken in total, the events we are seeing reflect not only an attack on American democracy implementers like IRI, but more importantly, are the tip of the iceberg in an ongoing effort to silence independent Egyptian civil society voices that have been under increasing assault since last fall. The rhetoric employed by Egyptian authorities in doing so is increasingly reminiscent of Mubarak-era propaganda," said Craner.
"The announcement of evidence against those implicated in the investigation by the judges and public statements made by Egyptian decision-makers, including the minister of justice and Minister of International Cooperation Abul-Naga, appear to be a direct violation of Egyptian law."
Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said at the hearing that the SCAF and the ministry run by Abul-Naga should be pressured on the issue.
"While the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces bears ultimate responsibility for this strain in relations, the minister of international cooperation should not be exempt from punitive actions," she said. "This is not about 'sovereignty,' but about patronage and corruption. Therefore, no further U.S. assistance should be provided to any ministry that is controlled by the minister of international cooperation."
Ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not to certify that Egypt can receive its $1.3 billion in military aid unless the NGO situation is resolved.
"Current law requires that, as a condition for the disbursal of military assistance to Egypt, the secretary of state must certify that Egypt is implementing policies that protect freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and rule of law. And, although the law allows for a waiver, I cannot imagine the secretary could either make that certification or waive the requirement, as long as this NGO case moves forward -- and I would not encourage her to do so," Berman said.
The first confrontation over the aid could come this week when a transportation-related bill comes to the Senate floor. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is trying to add an amendment that would immediately cut off aid to Egypt, ahead of the State Department's certification.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, McCain said that the Paul amendment was not helpful at this time and that he would fight to oppose it.
"I want to assure you that we are discussing that and ways to certainly avoid that action at this time," McCain said. He urged the administration to "explain to the rulers who are the military and leftovers from the Mubarak regime that this situation is really not acceptable to the American people."
His delegation, which will include Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and several other senators, will also visit other countries in the region.
Russia and Iran are continuing to send arms to the Syrian regime that can be used against protesters, a top State Department official said today.
"Iran is resupplying Syria and through Syria has supplied weapons to Hezbollah," said Tom Countryman, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, at a Wednesday morning breakfast meeting of the Defense Writers Group in Washington.
Countryman's bureau plays a major role in monitoring international compliance with nonproliferation and arms control rules. He declined to go into specifics on what arms Iran and Russia are giving the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but he confirmed that both countries are still supplying arms that can be used to attack civilians and opposition groups inside Syria, who are engaged in an increasingly bloody struggle with the government.
"We do not believe that Russian shipments of weapons to Syria are in the interests of Russia or Syria," he said.
According to Countryman, the Iranian weapons being funneled through the Syrian government to Hezbollah are not being used by Hezbollah inside Syria, but are being transferred to Hezbollah groups inside Syria's neighbor Lebanon.
Countryman also said the U.S. government is working with allies to try to get a handle on the stores of conventional, biological, and chemical weapons inside Syria, to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands if and when the Assad regime collapses.
There are "tens of thousands" of MANPADS - shoulder-fired missile systems -- in Syria and nobody really knows where they all are, Countryman said. Unlike Libya, Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, so there is no official reporting on its store of those weapons, but the effort to locate them is underway.
"We have ideas as to the quantity and we have ideas as to where they are," Countryman said. "We wish some of the neighbors of Syria to be on the lookout... When you get a change of regime in Syria, it matters what are the conditions -- chaotic or orderly."
He also commented on the news that Iran has sent a letter to EU High Representative Catherine Ashton proposing a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries, a letter that Ashton has already said does not contain enough new concessions to justify a new meeting.
"This would be a good day for [Iran] to answer a letter sent four months ago," Countryman said, but what Iran really needs to do is open up fully to IAEA inspectors and directly address all of the questions about its nuclear program.
"There is a path forward where Iran can pursue peaceful use of nuclear energy," he said.
Former National Security Council Senior Director Dennis Ross argued in a New York Times op-ed today that the window for diplomacy with Iran is now open again because of the pressure wrought on Iran by international sanctions.
"The Obama administration has now created a situation in which diplomacy has a chance to succeed," wrote Ross. "It remains an open question whether it will."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden hosted a star-studded lunch at the State Department Tuesday in honor of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, with a Valentine's Day theme to boot.
The tables were adorned with red rose bouquets and the menu featured Chinese-American fusion creations by chef Ming Tsai, including a roasted sweet potato soup with crispy duck confit roulade, soy marinated Alaskan butterfish, and "eight treasured rice packet" with dried fruit and pork sausage. Dessert was a flourless bittersweet chocolate cake topped with cardamom ice cream.
In addition to Clinton and Biden, the roster of former and current officials and celebrities in attendance included Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brezinksi, Thomas Friedman, Chris Hill, Chas Freeman, Alan Greenspan, and Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Dianne Fienstein (D-CA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Bob Corker (R-TN). State Department officials at the event included Wendy Sherman, Bob Hormats, Kurt Campbell, and many others.
Your humble Cable guy's table included Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, former National Security Advisor Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, and State Department counselor Harold Koh.
Clinton opened up the event by alluding to the holiday theme.
"Because we so highly value our relationship and you're here on what we call Valentine's Day, which is a time that is for love but also friendship, and we are so delighted that we could invite many American friends who know China, work in China, have relations in China, here to this lunch honoring you," she said.
Biden joked about Xi's visit Wednesday to Iowa, where the future Chinese leader had spent some time living with a homestay family in the 1980's.
"Your visit to Iowa will ensure you more delegates than I received there when I ran for president," Biden joked. "And Lindsey Graham is happy that you didn't show up there in January, or you might have won the GOP primary as well."
Biden then got serious and talked about how the U.S.-China relationship "is literally going to help shape the 21st century."
He mentioned China's deteriorating record on human rights and said, "We see our advocacy of human rights as a fundamental part of our foreign policy and we see human rights as a key to the prosperity of all societies."
"We have been clear about our concern over the areas in our perspective where conditions in China have deteriorated and the plight of several individuals," Biden said, though he did not mention any dissidents by name. "We appreciate your response."
In his own speech, Xi said touted China's human rights record and promised that his country would continue to focus on the personal aspirations of its people. He did not mention any specific human rights achievements, however.
"China has made tremendous and well recognized achievements in human rights over 30 years since opening up," said Xi. ""The Chinese government will always put people's interest first and take seriously people's aspirations and demands."
He alluded to a "new and important consensus" achieved during his trip, without elaborating.
The mood in the room was friendly and many attendees who had interacted with Xi personally said that he was more personable and somewhat less guarded than his boss Hu Jintao. They said that Xi was being very careful to stay on script and not make any mistakes, but that they were cautiously optimistic the visit would establish some rapport between Xi and his high-level U.S. interlocutors.
The lunch began more than an hour late because Xi's previous meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, which had been scheduled for 45 minutes, lasted almost an hour and a half. Biden has met Xi before and traveled to China late last year as the latter's guest, but today was the first meeting between Obama and Xi.
In Obama's remarks after the meeting, he nodded to the issue of human rights when he said, "[W]e will continue to emphasize what we believe is the importance of recognizing the aspirations and rights of all people."
Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth, who met with Biden before the visit, was not impressed with the back and forth on the issue and wrote that the language the administration used was weaker than he would have liked.
"The Obama team didn't even
publicly mention Chinese dissidents by name, let alone meet with them before
the Xi Jinping visit. Bad signal," Roth tweeted.
"The Obama team already wasn't doing much for human rights in
Now it's not even saying much."
Biden and Xi also met this morning, and Xi met with some senior former officials last night for dinner at his hotel in Woodley Park. Tonight, Xi eats at Biden's residence before he takes off for Iowa and then Los Angeles, where we're told he will take in a Lakers game.
Xi made the final toast at Tuesday's lunch.
"I now propose a toast to the health of Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and to the remarkable development of U.S.-.China relations in the last 40 years and to even better relations in the next 40 years," he said.
The Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha has been missing in action for months. So where did he go? As it turns out, he moved to China!
Moustapha, who is the subject of an FBI investigation for his alleged role in intimidating Syrian-American protesters and their families, is still listed as the Syria's ambassador to the United States on the Syrian embassy's website. But on his personal blog Feb. 8, he suddenly announced he and his family had moved to China, in a post entitled "A Fresh Start from the Middle Kingdom."
"Now that we have moved to China, I plan to resume blogging about my life, family and friends in China, as well as writing on Chinese culture, history and art," he wrote in his first post since August 2011. "I have a feeling that this is going to be a wonderful journey of learning, exploring, and, most importantly, serendipitously discovering one of the most remarkable world civilizations. I hope you will enjoy my Chinese adventure."
Moustapha had been implicated in the Justice Department's look into Syrian spying activities in Washington, an investigation that resulted in the October arrest of Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, a Syrian-American living in Virginia. Soueid stands accused of working as an agent for the Syrian intelligence service as part of a conspiracy to harass the Syrian-based families of protesters and dissidents in the United States.
"Syrian Ambassador to the U.S. Imad Mustafa is involved in activities that vary between espionage, threatening Syrian dissidents, and lobbying and organizing rallies in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad," wrote Hussain Abdul-Hussain, the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai, in June.
In July, it was reported that the FBI and the State Department's Diplomatic Security Bureau were investigating the Syrian embassy for using its diplomatic staff to spy on Syrian-Americans in Washington for the purpose of threatening their families back in Syria.
In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the embassy's information was being used back in Syria to arrest and even attack family members of protesters. Moustapha dismissed the allegations as "slander and sheer lies." But he stopped blogging and disappeared from Washington soon thereafter.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford returned to Washington last week, not as a diplomatic punishment to the Syrian regime, but because the streets surrounding the American compound in Damascus became too dangerous. But if Washington wants to formally expel the Syrian ambassador to the United States, it will have to send that notice to him in Beijing.
Or the State Department can just leave a comment on his blog, since he seems to be using it again.
Ironically, Moustapha himself seemed to predict the currently unfolding events in Syria on his blog last March, when he wrote a post about the Egyptian revolution and the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
"What has happened in Egypt in the past month is something of great historic significance," he wrote. "The ramifications of this revolution will continue to unfold, and its impact will reverberate for years to come."
Foggy Bottom took a big budget cut in 2012, so the State Department is asking for more money next year while requesting more than $8 billion for diplomatic activities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.
The president's fiscal 2013 budget request, released today, asks Congress for $51.6 billion for the State Department and USAID, which the administration describes as a 1.6 percent, or 0.8 billion increase over fiscal 2012 levels as enacted by Congress in the latest appropriations bill. That $51.6 billion total includes $8.2 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is meant to pay for the temporary costs of the wars in Southwest Asia and their aftermaths.
The administration's request for the entire international affairs account, known as the 150 function of federal budgeting, is $56.3 billion, a $1.4 billion or 2.6 percent increase of fiscal 2012 enacted levels. The $8.2 billion being requested for the OCO account is about $3 billion or 26 percent less than the level enacted for fiscal year 2012.
"Even in tough times, this request represents a smart and strategic investment. The State Department and USAID are among the most effective -- and cost effective -- tools we have to create economic opportunity and keep Americans safe," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in her letter accompanying the State and USAID budget request.
"We know that this is a time of fiscal constraint and economic hardship for the American people. So we are seeking out every opportunity to work smarter and more efficiently. We have proposed painful but responsible cuts without compromising our national security mission."
The budget request would cut funding for global health programs by $300 million and cut the request for humanitarian assistance by another $300 million, Clinton wrote. Overall assistance to Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia was cut by 18 percent in the request.
The budget request also includes $770 million for a Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund -- call it the "Arab Spring" budget. It is not yet clear to what extent the $770 million represents new funding vs. the repacking of old programs.
We'll have more after a series of briefings...
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford took to the U.S. Embassy Damascus Facebook page Thursday to explain the reasons for the closing of the embassy Feb. 6 and to offer new evidence that the Syrian regime is attacking civilians.
"First, like people around the world, my colleagues and friends are watching the video coming out of Homs and some of the other Syrian cities in the last days with horror and revulsion," Ford wrote. "I hear the devastating stories about newborns in Homs dying in hospitals where electricity has been cut and when we see disturbing photos offering proof that the regime is using mortars and artillery against residential neighborhoods, all of us become even more concerned about the tragic outcome for Syrian civilians." [emphasis in the original]
"It is odd to me that anyone would try to equate the actions of the Syrian army and armed opposition groups since the Syrian government consistently initiates the attacks on civilian areas, and it is using its heaviest weapons," he continued, in a not-so-veiled reference to Russian and Chinese diplomats, who made that very argument before vetoing the Arab League backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 4.
Ford also went into the reason behind the embassy closing, which he said was the most taxing day in his multi-decade diplomatic career.
"I left Damascus with immense sadness and regret-I wish our departure had not been necessary, but our Embassy, along with several other diplomatic missions in the area, was not sufficiently protected, given the new security concerns in the capital," he wrote. "We and those other embassies requested extra protection measures from the Syrian government, given the danger to both our citizens and the Syrian citizens that worked with and near us. Our concerns were not addressed."
Ford said he remains the ambassador and will work in Washington "to support a peaceful transition for the Syrian people." [italics original]
"We and our international partners hope to see a transition that reaches out and includes all of Syria's communities and that gives all Syrians hope for a better future," Ford wrote. "My year in Syria tells me such a transition is possible, but not when one side constantly initiates attacks against people taking shelter in their homes."
UPDATE: The State Department released a set of declassified satellite photos Friday as evidence the Syrian military is attacking civilians. Those photos can be found here.
U.S. Department of State
The State Department's Tamara Wittes will leave government and rejoin the Brookings Institution to become the new head of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, the think tank announced today.
"The chance to lead the Saban Center was such a great opportunity I really couldn't pass it up, and the chance to go back to my intellectual home in a leadership role was very exciting," Wittes told The Cable in an interview Wednesday.
At the State Department, Wittes had two roles. She was deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, where she supervised Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), and deputy coordinator to William Taylor in State's new Middle East Transitions office, which is meant to manage the U.S. reaction to the Arab uprisings.
Tom Vajda, director of the MEPI office, will serve as acting deputy assistant secretary until a full-time replacement for Wittes can be found. It's unclear whether the deputy coordinator position under Taylor will be filled. Wittes's last day at State was Jan. 31. She starts at Brookings March 1.
"I spent the last two year helping State build relationships across the region and Brookings also has great relationships, so this is going to be an opportunity to build on those in order to tackle the challenges the U.S. faces in a changing Middle East," she said.
At the Saban Center, Wittes will replace Ken Pollack, who will return to a full-time research role as senior fellow. Wittes was previously a senior fellow in the Saban Center at Brookings from 2003 to 2009, where she directed the Middle East Democracy and Development Project.
"Tammy is an extraordinary scholar and returns to Brookings with a wealth of experience. Her most recent efforts to promote the political, economic, and social empowerment of citizens in the Arab World make her ideally suited to lead the Saban Center for Middle East Policy," Brookings President Strobe Talbott said in a statement today.
Wittes's return to Brookings will reunite her professionally with her husband, Brookings scholar Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow in the governance studies program who studies legal issues surrounding national security.
There's an upside to working in the same building, Tamara Wittes said. "It certainly makes the commute easier."
In private phones calls this week, a top State Department official has been sending the message that the Egyptian military leadership is not behind the recent raids on NGO organizations and the prosecutions of aid workers, including American citizens.
According to three NGO officials with knowledge of the conversations, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns has been calling around to various stakeholders to keep them informed on the ever-worsening saga involving charges against 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, who stand accused of fomenting anti-government protests in Cairo. Part of Burns's message has been that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took executive power last February after ousting President Hosni Mubarak, may not ultimately be behind the raids or necessarily in favor of the prosecutions that resulted.
"We are keeping the affected NGOs apprised of our efforts to resolve this situation," a State Department official told The Cable. "There is a vacuum of authority. We have been directly pressing the authorities in Cairo, including the SCAF, although they may not be the driving force behind this."
The American Embassy in Cairo has claimed in similar discussions that the SCAF was surprised by the Dec. 29 raids on several NGOs, including the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House, the NGO officials said. The raids were reportedly conducted by Interior Ministry forces, not army soldiers.
The Obama administration has an interest in drawing a distinction between the actions of the SCAF, with which the United States has maintained a multi-decade alliance, and other parts of the Egyptian government, including the judiciary and the Ministry of International Cooperation, run by Fayza Abul-Naga, a longtime Mubarak loyalist suspected to be driving the effort to prosecute the aid workers.
For the NGO officials, the distinction is less important because they believe that the SCAF should exert more influence over Abul-Naga to stop the prosecutions and harassment of NGO groups, even if military leaders are not personally responsible for them.
"The SCAF is running the country, and whether they knew about the raids or not is beside the point. They bear ultimate responsibility for what is going on," one NGO official said. "She's the public face of this campaign and if they want to they can put pressure on her."
The United States' annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt is now under intense scrutiny in Washington. Many in the NGO community and on Capitol Hill believe the State Department is trying to defend the aid as a means of preserving what's left of the U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship, which has been a linchpin in maintaining U.S. influence in the region and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Earlier this month, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman was dispatched to Cairo to confront the Egyptian government about the raids. He told the Egyptian media during that trip, "The administration has continued to make a very strong case for our assistance to Egypt."
That was before the Egyptian judiciary refused to let aid workers leave Cairo and decided to charge them with criminal offenses, including Sam Lahood, the Cairo head of IRI and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jake Walles led a classified briefing for lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday, after which senators who participated complained that they had heard no real plan to end the crisis. Those same lawmakers said the administration was working valiantly on the issue, but with no measurable success.
Lawmakers could propose legislation to immediately cut off assistance to the SCAF, rather than wait until the administration is required to certify that Egypt has met new, more stringent conditions placed on the annual aid package, but Congress isn't quite there yet.
"The Egyptians ought to know what they're doing charging and detaining Americans on what I believe are trumped-up charges is endangering the aid we are giving them," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable Tuesday. "We have a real interest in having good relations with Egypt because they have a central role in the region. On the other hand we can't just sit back and let them do what they're doing with the NGOs."
In a stream of statements Tuesday, a drumbeat of top lawmakers threatened to support withholding aid to Egypt if the NGO situation isn't resolved. "Congressional support for Egypt -- including continued financial assistance -- is in jeopardy," Lieberman said in a press statement along with Sens. Kelly Ayotte and John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of the board of IRI.
"Yesterday's prosecutions are frankly a slap in the face to Americans who have supported Egypt for decades and to Egyptian individuals and NGOs who have put their futures on the line for a more democratic Egypt," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Tuesday.
"This is not the way an ally should be treated. I believe that we should re-evaluate the status of our bilateral relationship during this transition period," said SFRC member Ben Cardin (D-MD).
"The Egyptian government's actions cannot be taken lightly and warrant punitive actions against certain Egyptian officials, and consideration of a cutoff of U.S. assistance to Egypt," said House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
"Continuing down this path will make it increasingly difficult for Congress to provide military and economic assistance to Egypt and for the Administration to certify legal requirements necessary for aid to move forward," said House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee ranking Democrat Nita Lowey (D-NY).
For its part, the Egyptian government is projecting calm. In a news conference Wednesday, Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri said that the prosecutions will go forward. "Egypt will apply the law... in the case of NGOs and will not back down because of aid or other reasons," he said.
If the State Department truly believes that the judiciary and international cooperation ministries are solely to blame for the NGO crisis in Egypt, it's possible U.S. diplomats got that information directly from the Egyptian government.
At last weekend's meeting of the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr professed that the executive branch in Egypt had no role and no influence over the NGO cases. "We are doing our best to contain this but…we cannot actually exercise any influence on the investigating judges right now when it comes to the investigation," he said, eliciting scoffs of disbelief from the audience.
The State Department in Washington has a message for the 16,000 employees at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad: If you can't get arugula in the cafeteria, just deal with it and stop complaining to the New York Times.
A huge section of Tuesday's State Department briefing with spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was taken up with discussion of the New York Times article that said half of the employees at America's largest embassy might be sent home. According to the Times, embassy employees and contractors are so restricted from doing things in Iraq, it has become a waste of money to keep them there. The story contained many gripes from embassy staff, whose supply chains have been disrupted due to the departure of all U.S. troops in December.
"Within days [of the troop pullout], the salad bar at the embassy dining hall ran low. Sometimes there was no sugar or Splenda for coffee. On chicken-wing night, wings were rationed at six per person," the Times reported.
Nuland, pestered by reporters on whether a poorly stocked salad bar was a big problem, said that it shouldn't be and that whoever complained to the Times was out of line.
"Does the State Department consider, you know, not enough arugula to be a hardship in Iraq?" one reporter asked.
"Frankly, I saw that story and it looked like some whining that was inappropriate... on the part of embassy employees...with regard to the quality of the salad bar," Nuland responded,
She went on to whine a bit herself about the Times story, which she said "exaggerated" the degree to which the State Department is "considering" reducing staffing at the embassy.
"First, let me say that, with regard to our diplomatic presence, there is no consideration being given to slashing our diplomats by half. What we are doing -- and Deputy Secretary [Tom] Nides is leading this process -- is looking at how we can right-size our embassy in Iraq and particularly how we can do more for that mission through the hiring of local employees rather than having to be as dependent as we've been in the past on very expensive contractors," she said.
"So we're trying to do our best to save the American taxpayer money in the way we support our diplomatic personnel."
Nuland said the exact numbers for reductions haven't been determined and reductions would definitely involve contractors and maybe also diplomatic staff. Nides has been working on this "informally" for months, she said, and in the last couple of week initiated a more formal "bottom-up review."
"And then when did the magic light bulb go off in somebody's head that 16,000 contractors might be a few too many?" one reporter asked Nuland.
"Well, we've been working on right-sizing this mission all the way through, as we looked at the transition," she said. "Obviously this is a time of transition for us too."
Nuland also didn't deny that Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffries is slated to step down in the coming weeks.
"Ambassador Jeffrey is on a regular diplomatic assignment. It was of a particular duration. Frankly, I don't have at my fingertips here when his assignment is completed," she said. "But obviously, in the context of regular rotation of ambassadors, when his tour is completed, or in the context of his tour being completed, the president will nominate a new ambassador for Iraq who will have to have the consent of the -- of the Senate. So we're not at that stage yet."
Tuesday marked Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's first official visit to Washington in 18 months and he made extensive rounds, meeting with State Department officials and a host of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
In the morning, Lieberman met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the first time since 2010. There were no official statements made after the meeting, but Lieberman told Haaretz it was a "very good" meeting that included a lot of substance. "We are waiting for Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions and we express our appreciation for the support of Israel," he said. "We appreciate the very crucial decision [by the Obama administration] of sanctions against Iran, and we continue to monitor it closely."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that the meeting spanned the gamut of issues, including U.S.-Israeli relations, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Middle East peace, Turkey, and Iraq... all in about 30 minutes.
"With regard to Iran, they talked extensively about the impact that the new sanctions are having and our efforts to work with countries around the world to wean them from Iranian oil and, obviously, our mutual commitment to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and to increase the pressure through these sanctions," Nuland said.
After Iran, the most oft discussed topic in Lieberman's Washington meetings was the new agreement between Fatah and Hamas, but Nuland said the State Department has not made a judgment on that agreement or what it will mean for the U.S. involvement in the region.
"They did discuss the fact that it's not particularly clear what this agreement will change. In particular, we still have President [Mahmoud] Abbas at the head of the government; we still have Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad responsible. And so frankly, any impact this may or may not have is unclear," she said.
That issue came up often in Lieberman's meetings on Capitol Hill Tuesday. After meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), Lieberman sat down with the triumvirate of Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
In a brief interview Tuesday with The Cable, Senator Lieberman said the Palestinian agreement was a major issue for him personally.
"Surprisingly, we didn't talk that much about Iran. The conversation was about the Hamas-Fatah agreement, Syria, and Egypt," Senator Lieberman said. "It's very troubling. Hamas is still on our terrorist list and still committed to the destruction of Israel... If this agreement means that Hamas and Fatah are together running the government, then it puts in real jeopardy American assistance to the Palestinian Authority."
Senator Lieberman also weighed in on reports that Fayyad will lose his position. "Fayyad has enormous credibility in the U.S. Congress, he has more credibility than any other of the Palestinian leaders," he said. "If he's gone, it's a real step backward."
He also said the portrayal of Foreign Minister Lieberman in the press, which sometimes includes accusations of anti-Arab racism, are not accurate. "The reality of the Avigdor Lieberman is better than his portrayal in the media. He's a thoughtful man, he has a big world view," Senator Lieberman said.
The Israeli foreign minister then sat down for lunch with several members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee before meeting one on one with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
In attendance at the HFAC lunch were Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA), Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Elliot Engel (D-NY), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Ted Deutsch (D-FL, whose chief of staff is named Josh Rogin), Dan Burton (R-IN), Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), David Rivera (R-FL), David Cicilline (D-RI), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), and Eni Faleomavaega (D-Samoa).
"We share your deep concerns about Iran, and I would appreciate your thoughts on how much time you believe there is before Iran enters into a zone of immunity," Ros-Lehtinen said at the top of the lunch meeting, before reporters were ushered out of the room. "On Iran, do you think the U.S. and Israel are on the same page, with regards to how much time we have left?"
We were told by multiple staffers that Iran dominated the discussion at the lunch but Lieberman said nothing new about Israel's intentions regarding striking Iran. (The lawmakers also served Lieberman a lunch of couscous and chick peas, traditional Middle Eastern fare, which struck some as odd considering he can probably get better versions of both foods at home.)
"Foreign Minister Lieberman made very clear the serious and present danger Iran presents to Israel, the region, and the world," Berman said in a statement. "It was clear that the Israeli government has not taken any option off the table vis-à-vis Iran."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Your humble Cable guy discussed the violence in Syria and the United Nations Security Council's failed effort last weekend to build international consensus on how to deal with the crisis on Monday evening's edition of the Rachel Maddow show with guest host Chris Hayes.
Take a look:
The Syrian people have the right to fight back against their government and the international community has several options to help them in that regard, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Saturday.
As the tempo and intensity of Bashar al-Assad regime's violence against civilian accelerates and the U.N. Security Council remains paralyzed, the United States and its partners are planning their next steps. As a press conference Saturday night at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, several members of the U.S. congressional delegation laid out several ideas under consideration for protecting the Syrian people.
"There are many different options as to how we can do that," said Kerry. "There are the early beginnings of a civil war taking place in Syria. And if the government is going to kill randomly, people deserve the right to defend and fight for themselves."
Kerry declined to specify what steps Washington might take to directly support the internal Syrian opposition or the Free Syria Army, the ragtag defectors who have taken up arms against Assad, but he warned the Syrian government and its supporters Russia and China that the United States would not stand idly by.
"Syria is not Libya," Kerry said. "But nobody should interpret that statement to suggest that it means that Syrian leaders can rely on the notion that they can act with impunity and not expect the international community to assist the Syrian people in some way."
He also insisted that there will be another round of negotiations on a Security Council resolution regarding Syria, despite the vetoes by Russia and China that followed last week's efforts to build world consensus on the way forward.
"I'm confident this will be revisited," Kerry said. "Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and Ambassador [to the U.N. Susan] Rice are prepared in a competent way to embrace Russian and Chinese concerns, but not in ways that would undermine the ability of the people in Syria to have their voices heard or to be oppressed or create a longer stalemate."
He continued: "I think that balance can be found, I'm confident it will be found. There will be another shot at the effort but it is really important for Russia and China, critical leaders in the world today [to join us]. They have an opportunity in the next days to step up and were inviting them to do so. I hope they will join us on such a critical statement with respect to rights of innocent people."
Speaking at the press conference in Munich Sunday night, congressional delegation leaders John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) laid out more specific ideas on how the international community can help the people of Syria.
"There's a lot we can do to provide moral support and to provide material support, along with Turkey and other nations, in assisting these people with medical care and other assistance," McCain said. "I do not know how Russia and China can represent themselves as members of the world community and still oppose a resolution that would help bring this bloodletting to an end."
Lieberman said he hopes some sense could be talked to the Russians and the Chinese and that the Security Council would work on another resolution.
"But if that doesn't work I don't think we can just stand by. I hope the international community and the U.S. will provide assistance to the Syrian Free Army in the various ways we can. I hope we will work with Turkey and Jordan to create safe havens on the borders of those two countries with Syria," Lieberman said. "What's happening in Syria today is exactly what we got involve in Libya to stop from happening.... I understand Syria is more complicated, but one choice we don't have is just to stand back and let the government kill people who are fighting for their own freedom."
Speaking on Monday in Bulgaria, Clinton laid out the most specific ideas to date about how the Obama administration plans to move forward on the issue.
"So what do we do? Well, faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future. We have to increase diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime and work to convince those people around President Assad that he must go, and that there has to be a recognition of that and a new start to try to form a government that will represent all of the people of Syria," she said.
The Obama administration will seek new regional and international sanctions against Syria and will try to expose those who are still funding and arming the regime, Clinton said. She also promised to increase contacts with the Syrian opposition and provide humanitarian relief to the Syrian people.
Clinton didn't, however, promise another run at the Security Council, indicating only that more diplomatic efforts were on the way.
"Over the coming days, I will be consulting closely with our allies and partners in Europe, in the Arab League, and around the world," she said. "So we will be consulting with the foreign minister here and others about what we can do to rescue this deteriorating situation before it's too late."
Now that Russia and China have vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria, what does the international community intend to do next and how will the situation play out? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said just now there's no way to know.
"We don't know what the endgame will be until we start the game," Clinton said at a press conference at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, just minutes before Russia and China killed the resolution put forth by Morocco and supported by the United States and several other security council members. "Asking what the end game is can't be answered until we actually start to bring about the changes that we think will be beneficial."
Clinton warned that more violence would be in the offing if the security council was not able to act immediately.
"The endgame, in the absence of us acting together as the international community, is civil war," she said. "The potential endgames, if we are serious about putting this kind of international pressure on the Assad regime, making it clear to the opposition that they should pursue their changes in a peaceful manner, is the possibility of the beginning of a transition."
Clinton said in the best case scenario, the situation in Syrian could be "similar to what we see now in Yemen."
"They (in Yemen) are going to have an election. They are going to have a chance to at least try to move forward," Clinton said.
She added that "military intervention has been absolutely ruled out and we have made that clear from the very beginning."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained about the lack of a clear post-resolution strategy for Syria in his remarks in Munich Saturday morning. He said clearly that without further changes to the resolution, Russia would use its veto power.
"We asked the Americans and the Europeans, ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well, in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said. "It's not a serious policy."
Despite those comments, Clinton expressed hope the resolution would pass - just before it failed.
"The draft on the table being considered as I speak gives full backing to a Syrian led process that will benefit the region and the world, and give the Syrian people the chance they deserve. We should act now," Clinton said at the Saturday press conference just before the vote.
Clinton said that during her long meeting with Lavrov Saturday, she told him she was willing to try to find ways to bridge the gaps between the draft resolution and Russian concerns. But following the meeting, it became increasingly clear there was no way to find consensus, so the U.S. and its allies decided to move ahead.
"I thought that there might be some ways, even at this last moment, to address a few of the concerns that the Russians had. I offered to work in a constructive manner to do so. That has not been possible and we are going forward, as we said we would," she said.
Russia and China are now complicit in the atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime, Clinton argued.
"It is difficult to imagine that after the bloodiest day yet in Syria, there are those who would prevent the world community from condemning this violence. And I would ask them, what more do we need to know to act decisively in the security council?" she said. "To block this resolution is to bear the responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria."
U.S. Ambassador to the U.S. Susan Rice said she was "outraged" at Russia and China's stance and Rice called the opposition to the resolution a "cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people."
MUNICH - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave opposing public speeches Saturday on what should be done in Syria, and then took their dispute behind closed doors in a heated bilateral meeting, in advance of Saturday's U.N. Security Council action in New York.
"As a tyrant in Damascus brutalizes his own people, the U.S. and Europe stand shoulder to shoulder," Clinton said in her speech at the 2012 Munich Security Conference. "We are united, alongside the Arab League, in demanding an end to the bloodshed and a democratic future for Syria. And we are hopeful that at 10 AM eastern standard time in New York, the security council will express the will of the international community."
Well, the 10 AM deadline has come and gone, but State Department officials insist the U.S. is committed to holding a vote on the latest draft resolution on the situation on Syria today, despite persistent Russian concerns over the text, which were outlined by Lavrov in his speech only minutes after Clinton left the stage.
Lavrov said that Russia stands by the Syrian people but not the "armed groups" in Syria that he alleged were contributing to the violence. He said Russia would not agree to any resolution that amounts to outside interference or presupposes the political outcome in Syria other than supporting a dialogue between the two sides.
"The problem is, the peaceful protesters have our full support, but they are being used by the armed groups, who create trouble. And this is reaching quite dangerous proportions," Lavrov said.
Lavrov said Russia had two main problems with the current draft of the resolution. He said the current draft resolution "left the door open to military intervention to the outside," because it does not include a Russian drafted statement that would explicitly say a military intervention is not authorized.
He also said the draft resolution seeks to prejudge the results of a national Syrian dialogue because it refers to the Arab League Initiative's report and says the process should follow the Arab's League's schedule for resolution of the transition of power in Syria.
"If this resolution is adopted and Assad doesn't go, we asked the Americans and the Europeans ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said.
"It's not a serious policy," he insisted.
Lavrov heavily criticized the Arab League monitoring mission and defended Russian arms sales to the Syrian regime, which continue to this day. Lavrov said the U.N. charter does not allow interference in internal domestic affairs and that without Russian support, any plan devised in the security council would not be viable.
The Cable asked Lavrov whether Russia was concerned about ending up on the wrong side of history in Russia by supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"We are not friends or allies of Assad," Lavrov responded, "We try to stick to our responsibilities as permanent members of the security council and the security council doesn't by definition engage in the internal affairs of states, it's about maintaining international peace and security."
The Cable followed Lavrov out of the conference hall and into his bilateral meeting with Clinton. Clinton was joined in the meeting by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher, NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder, and Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
A senior State Department official said the meeting went longer than planned, 45 minutes, and two thirds of that time was spent discussing the U.N. Security Council situation regarding Syria.
"The secretary and the foreign minister had a very vigorous discussion," the official said. "The secretary made clear that the U.S. feels strongly that the U.N. Security Council should vote today."
The official would not going into the details of the bilateral discussion on Syria but said it's safe to assume that Clinton and Lavrov did not resolve their differences over the way ahead.
"Foreign Minister Lavrov did not dispute the urgency of the situation and the action now moves to New York," the official said.
MUNICH - At Saturday's morning session of the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta clarified that NATO forces will not stop fighting in Afghanistan in 2013, but he confirmed that the U.S. hopes to hand over the combat lead to Afghan forces that year. Many European and NATO officials in the room were still a little miffed they had to learn about the strategy shift in the newspapers two days ago.
On the way to Brussels to attend the NATO defense ministers meeting Feb. 2, Panetta made news by saying that U.S. forces will transition out of a lead combat role next year. "Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013," Panetta said. "Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role."
On Saturday morning here in Munich, sitting beside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Panetta made the same announcement again, but this time with a bit more nuance.
"Our bottom line [in Afghanistan] is ‘in together, out together.' As an alliance, we are fully committed to the Lisbon framework and transitioning to Afghan control by 2014. Our discussions included considerations about how ISAF will move from the lead combat role to a support, advise, and assist role as Afghan security forces move into the lead," he said. "We hope Afghan forces will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan sometime in 2013. But of course ISAF will continue to be fully combat capable and we will engage in combat as necessary thereafter."
Prior to Panetta's statements this week, the only public milestone between now and the full transition of responsibility to Afghan forces at the end of 2014, as was announced at the Lisbon conference last year, was the Sept. 2012 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. surge forces, as announced by President Barack Obama last June.
Panetta's remarks this week place a new milestone in the middle of those two dates, by setting a public goal of handing over lead combat responsibility for the last geographical area in Afghanistan, known as Tranche 5, over a year before the full handover of responsibility is set to take place.
European officials here in Munich said they understood the reason for the new milestone, which is to give the Afghans some time to adjust to having the combat lead while NATO forces are still present in large enough numbers to help them out, especially if there are bumps along the road.
But several NATO and European officials were shocked and some were even a little miffed that Panetta had made a major change in the messaging over the Afghanistan war without giving them a heads up.
There are two different theories as to why Panetta decided to announce the 2013 milestone on the plane to Europe, before telling his NATO counterparts about it, despite that he was about to see them only hours later.
Some here in Munich think that Panetta simply spoke too fast and didn't mean to surprise his European colleagues. Others believe that Panetta wanted to announce the news on his own terms, rather than tell the Europeans and then have it leak out to the press, perhaps in an even less articulate way.
One high ranking European official told The Cable that his government was expecting such an announcement at the NATO summit in Chicago in May, not here in Europe in February.
"The feeling was, well we can't say the same thing in Chicago as we said in Lisbon," the official said, referring to the expected May announcement. "It was all carefully planned and now that plan is completely ruined."
European governments had told the Obama administration that announcing a new milestone for drawdowns in Afghanistan was politically difficult for them, but that they were willing to go along with it, albeit reluctantly.
"We said, ‘Okay, if Obama needs this politically, that's fine. But please consider the bad side effects for us. This is hard to explain to our constituencies," the European official said. "Before today we could still say the drawdown was conditions based. Now we can't make the argument that it's anything but politically motivated."
Panetta's main mission Saturday was to reassure European countries that the United States was not abandoning Europe despite the defense budget cuts in the U.S. and the American strategic pivot to Asia. He announced that a battalion sized U.S. military force would rotate to Europe as America's first concrete presence in the NATO Response Force.
"Our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other region in the world," he said.
In the question and answer session following his remarks, Panetta said that the Pentagon was not planning to implement the defense "trigger" set to go into effect in Jan. 2013, which would mandate $600 billion in additional defense cuts over the next ten years.
"Sequestration is a crazy formula," he said. "We're not paying attention to sequester. Sequester is crazy... If sequester happened, the strategy I just developed would have to be thrown out the window."
That's right, your humble Cable guy is on his way to Germany to participate in the 48th annual Munich Security Conference, one of the largest gatherings of national security officials in the world.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), and a large delegation of experts and lawmakers led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) will be at the event, which begins Friday. Other senators and former officials from Washington headed to Munich include Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Mark Udall (D-CO), Brent Scowcroft, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalizad, Kurt Volker, Dan Senor, and many others.
"It is arguably the most important security conference of them all," McCain told The Cable. "It's like Davos without the Hollywood aspect."
When McCain learned that The Cable will be at the conference, blogging and tweeting the whole time, he said, "Oh, no.... I'm going to call the German embassy."
Lieberman gave The Cable a little more historical perspective about the conference, which he has been attending for over 20 years, after first being invited by Sen. John Glenn (D-OH). Bill Cohen, who served as senator and later defense secretary, led the U.S. congressional delegation to the conference at that time. Cohen passed the baton to McCain when he left the Senate, and McCain invited Lieberman to be the co-leader of the delegation to give it a bipartisan character.
"For decades, it has been an occasion to discuss critical issues in the U.S.-European alliance. In the past 10 or 15 years it really has been broadened," Lieberman said. Defense ministers and foreign ministers from just about every NATO country attend and recently more and more heads of state are showing up as well, he said.
Among the foreign leaders expected to attend, in addition to U.S. and European officials, are Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jabali, and perhaps even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The interactions with the Russian delegation are always interesting, Lieberman said.
"We've had some very eyeball-to-eyeball matches when President [Vladimir] Putin has come," he said.
The main topics of the formal conference sessions will be the effect of the global recession on defense budgets, what President Barack Obama's so-called pivot to Asia means for U.S.-Europe relationship, and the uprisings in the Arab world.
But a lot of the action happens informally in the hallways and in the bilateral meetings that take place on the sidelines of the sessions. Last year, Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov actually exchanged the final documents of the New START treaty there.
McCain and Lieberman always plan one stop on the way to Munich. This year, they are touching down for a few hours in Madrid to meet with the Spanish government led by newly elected President Mariano Rajoy Brey.
It's a lot of foreign policy packed into only a couple of days, but watch this site for coverage of all the action.
"It's quick," Lieberman said. "We go Thursday and we'll be back Sunday night in time for the Super Bowl."
Photograph by Kai Mörk
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.