President Barack Obama is prepared to give the order to strike Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon if sanctions and international pressure prove ineffective, said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who just returned from a whirlwind trip around the region.
"[Obama] is definitely capable of ordering a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities," Lieberman told The Cable in a Friday interview. "Do I know that he will? No. But the Iranians and others will be foolishly mistaken if they assume that he will not in any circumstance order a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if the sanctions don't work."
"I don't know that the president will order a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities even if the sanctions don't work, but I know that he's capable of doing that and I believe he's prepared to do that," he said, adding that he doesn't think Obama would ever send ground troops to Iran.
Over the New Year's break, Lieberman visited Israel, Iraq, Tunisia, and Libya, and he said Iran was the number one concern of leaders in the region. In previous meetings, Israeli officials had focused almost entirely on U.S. red lines and their concern over whether Obama would really attack Iran if push came to shove, emphasizing that Israel would attack if the United States doesn't. But now the Israeli government seems more willing to let the sanctions strategy run its course, Lieberman said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview this week that Iran is beginning to show signs of cracking under the international sanctions regime.
"Not only do the Israelis believe the U.S. and the international community has to go through every economic effort to change the mind of the Iranian leadership, but now they believe it might actually work. They believe that the economic sanctions are having an effect on the Iranian economy and beginning to have an effect on the regime," he said.
Lieberman himself doesn't believe that the Iranian regime will ever transform into a constructive member of the world community, but he holds out hope that the sanctions, due to their effect on the Iranian people, could force the regime to rethink its strategy.
"The only thing the Iranian government cares more about than the development of their nuclear weapons is the survival of the regime," he said.
The Obama administration has been adamant that regime change per se is not the goal of U.S. sanctions. On Wednesday, a Washington Post article initially quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying "regime change" was the goal, but then was quickly corrected to say "public ire" was the sanctions' goal, not regime change. Today, a U.S. official told AFP that the goal of the sanctions was to "close down" the Central Bank of Iran (CBI).
When the Menendez-Kirk amendment -- which imposed sanctions on the CBI and eventually became U.S. law -- came up the Senate, the administration resisted the measure, warning it could harm the U.S. economy and aid Iran's economy. These days, the administration has changed its stance and is now embracing the sanctions.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner traveled to Japan and China this week to encourage them to cut off their dealings with the CBI, and the State Department instructed all of its ambassadors to meet with their host governments to explain the new law and express the administration's intention to enforce it.
Back in Washington, pro-sanctions senators aren't taking any chances that the administration might back off its newer, tougher stance vis-à-vis Iran. Congress is encouraging the EU to implement a full oil embargo, and the Senate plans to bring up a new round of Iran sanctions legislation for consideration as early as next month.
Lieberman and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also plan to introduce a new Senate resolution to express the sense of Congress that a containment strategy for Iran that falls short of doing everything possible to stop the Islamic Republic from obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.
"Now the Iranians are clearly hurting. We have to make clear to them that if they don't respond to the economic and diplomatic pressures, that containment is not an option. We're not going to just sit there and let them become a nuclear power," Lieberman said about his forthcoming resolution. "I think is a way for Congress of saying with all the options on the table, containment cannot be one [of the options]."
But isn't the Senate's action also directed at the Obama administration, to make it clear to the White House that Congress does not accept a containment strategy for a nuclear Iran?
"Yes, exactly," Lieberman said. "But the first target of the resolution is Iran."
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The United States and Russia will conclude a missile defense cooperation agreement eventually as a result of the "strategic stability" talks between the two powers, according to the State Department's top arms control official.
"We will get a missile defense agreement for cooperation with Russia," Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher told a meeting of the Defense Writers Group on Thursday. "I believe that missile defense is the metaphor for the opportunity of getting things right [in the U.S.-Russia relationship]. It's been an irritant in our relationship for 30 years. It's also the place where great European powers, including Russia, can work together cooperatively."
Tauscher talked at length about her ongoing discussions, which she dubbed "strategic stability" talks, with Russian officials over missile defense. These have centered around cooperation on the Obama administration's European missile defense program, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, she said.
"Almost everything else that you work with on European security has been settled, decided, and worked on together for decades. The only thing that's new where you can bring the Russians in is missile defense," Tauscher said. "This is the place where we can begin to put aside the Cold War and ‘mutually assured destruction' and move toward ‘mutually assured stability.'"
Your humble Cable guy asked Tauscher why the Obama administration's optimism about a missile defense agreement with Moscow seems so far removed from the pessimism of leading Russian officials. In a November speech, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggested talks had broken down and he threatened several retaliatory measures, including Russia's potential withdrawal from the New START nuclear reductions agreement.
Tauscher responded that these statements were part of the Russian campaign season and that progress would speed up once the March Presidential elections in Russia had subsided. She also acknowledged that the Russians are demanding a legally binding document from the Obama administration promising U.S. missile defenses in Europe will not impact Russia's strategic deterrent, which Tauscher said they will never get.
"We will never do a legally binding agreement because I can't do one. I can't get anything ratified. Even if I wanted to I'm not sure I would.... ‘Legally binding' doesn't mean what it did before," Tauscher said. "What they are looking for really is a sense that future administrations are going to live by [Obama's commitments]. And you can't really do that."
GOP senators fought hard against during the New START debate against giving Russia any assurances that could be seen as limits on the U.S. missile defense system. Tauscher said the only way for Russia to be assured about the U.S. system was to cooperate fully in its implementation.
"The only way they are going to be assured ... the system does not undercut their strategic deterrent is to sit with us in the tent in NATO and see what we are doing. They will only be their own eyes and ears," she said. "Is it a political leap of faith? Yes. Are they ready to do it? No. But we are hoping that these strategic stability talks over the next 8 months will start to loosen these old ties that have been binding everybody in the old way of thinking."
Tauscher also said implementation of New START with Russia was going extremely well, one year after ratification. There have been 1,700 notifications [of missile movements, etc] and each side has done near the maximum allowed number of inspections, she said.
"We have a very good treaty. Nobody claimed it was the best or the biggest treaty in the world. But it's a modest treaty that has served us in so many different ways," she said. "New START is just doing great."
Tauscher said the Obama administration hopes the "strategic stability" talks will establish reliability and durability in the U.S.-Russia relationship, which will lead to further nuclear reduction talks following Russia's presidential election, including discussions about reducing Russia's tactical nuclear stockpile.
"We want to get back to the table with the Russians both on strategic and non-strategic, deployed and non-deployed. That means everything," she said "We need the elections can pass so that both sides can get back to the table."
Overall, Tauscher disputed the contention that U.S.-Russia relations have peaked, and she dismissed those who have pointed to official comments from either side that seem to indicate the U.S.-Russia "reset" policy is coming to an end.
"While you might pick little data points out and say well there's a little bit of snotty talk here or there... the truth is everything is moving along, nose up, things are good."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swore in Mike McFaul as the U.S. ambassador to Russia at a ceremony on Teusday at the State Department, where McFaul defended and pledged to continue the administration's U.S.-Russia reset policy.
"This is a good day for us all -- for the United States, which is sending an absolutely top-notch emissary to Moscow, and for our partners in Russia.... And for Mike and his family, it will be an adventure," Clinton said, standing in front of a packed audience of diplomats, officials, experts, and journalists in the State Department's elegant Benjamin Franklin ballroom.
"This administration has placed a particular emphasis on working together with Russia, one of the most complex and consequential relationships we have with any nation in the world.... And I think it's fair to say we have a lot to show for that effort," she said.
Clinton highlighted several achievements of the reset policy, including the New START agreement, the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, the 1-2-3 Agreement for Civil Nuclear Cooperation, expanding supply routes into Afghanistan, and working on Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization.
Clinton recounted the story of how the United States informed Russia that McFaul would be the ambassador, which was different from the usual diplomatic notification.
"When President [Barack] Obama saw President [Dmitry] Medvedev at the G-8 summit in Deauville [France] in May, he simply said, ‘I'm planning to nominate Mike to be the next ambassador to Russia.' And President Medvedev responded immediately with a tone full of respect, ‘Of course. He's a tough negotiator,'" Clinton recounted.
She also said she expects to hear stories about McFaul's jam sessions in Moscow when members of his band come to visit.
"And I'm even told there may be a few rock and roll sessions when Mike's band mates from The Pigs visit Moscow. And it's not an agricultural issue, ambassador. I don't think they'll need to be quarantined with their instruments," Clinton joked.
In his remarks, McFaul also defended the reset policy and thanked his family for moving with him to Moscow instead of returning to their home in Palo Alto, California, as had been planned.
"I was planning on going home and so were my sons, but Secretary Clinton and President Obama thought otherwise, because the reset was not completed last summer, nor is it over now, as some are saying. On the contrary, today we're on to the next, more complex phase, when the alignment of our interests and values is neither simple nor easy," McFaul said. "On to the next adventure. Russia, here we come!"
Several senior Obama administration officials from both the State Department and the National Security Council, where McFaul had been serving as senior director for Russia since 2009, attended the event. They included White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, the NSC's Denis McDonough, Ben Rhodes, and Liz Sherwood-Randall, and the ambassadors of Russia, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Romania, Poland, Kyrgyzstan, and many others.
The resignation of President Barack Obama's chief of staff shows that the White House is unstable and its national security policies remain dangerous, a top surrogate for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney told The Cable today.
"This unexpected move of Bill Daley out points to a lack of stability," said former Senator Jim Talent in a Tuesday interview.
Talent, who is one of Romney's closest advisors on national security, also harshly criticized Obama's decision to revamp U.S. military strategy, which he announced at the Pentagon on Jan. 5. The new strategy review, released only weeks ahead of Obama's fiscal 2013 budget request, calls for a "smaller and leaner" military and backs off from previous strategy documents that mandated the U.S. military maintain the capability to fight two major wars at the same time.
"I think it's going to encourage provocative actions around the world," said Talent. "It's a signal that America's not going to continue exercising a leadership role, it's very dangerous. And you know that one of the amazing things about it is that it's explicitly a budget-driven decision, in other words there's no pretense that this is a change based on strategic analysis."
When announcing the new defense strategy, Obama said, "The tide of war is receding" -- but the Romney team doesn't see it that way at all.
"That sends the wrong message, it encourages other countries to believe that they can provoke and challenge us, and it will end up costing us more money," said Talent. "It's so much an explicit confession of bankruptcy in terms of defense policy, I almost don't know how to respond to it."
In fact, Talent said that Obama's strategic review is more damaging than the military cuts made by President Bill Clinton's administration following the end of the Cold War.
"That two-war standard was continued in the post-Cold War era by the Clinton administration and was deemed necessary in the 1990s -- and that was before the 9/11 attacks, that was before the rise of Chinese power, and that was before Russia reassumed a more aggressive posture," said Talent. "So if it was necessary according to President Clinton in the 1990s before those additional risks ... how could it not be necessary now?"
Talent laid some of the top foreign policy priorities in a Romney administration, framing them as areas where it was necessary to fix Obama's missteps. These include a new policy to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, the importance of channeling China in a direction of peaceful competition rather than aggression, the need to reestablish the strength of traditional allies, the need for the United States to play a larger leadership role in the international community, and the need to reverse Obama-era defense cuts and restore military strength.
"Governor Romney believes that the Obama administration has pursued a policy of weakness across the spectrum of areas," Talent said.
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President Barack Obama announced today that White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley will resign and be replaced by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director and former Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew. In his remarks today, Obama touted Lew's experience on both domestic and foreign policy matters.
"Jack has fought for an America where hard work and responsibility pay off, a place where everybody gets a fair shot, everybody does their fair share and everybody plays by the same rules. And that belief is reflected in every decision that Jack makes," Obama said. "Jack also has my confidence on matters outside the borders. Before he served at OMB for me, Jack spent two years running the extremely complex and challenging budget and operations process for Secretary [Hillary] Clinton at the State Department, where his portfolio also included managing the civilian operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And over the last year, he has weighed in on many of the major foreign policy decisions that we've made."
Here are five things you may not know about Lew, a man who has been working in policy circles since starting as a congressional aide in 1983:
Defense budgets: Lew is the key official behind the Obama administration's two major decisions to cut defense spending. Last April, he managed the process that led to a last-minute deal to raise the debt ceiling, which resulted in the Pentagon's six-month review to find $450 billion in savings over ten years, compared to defense spending projections by the Congressional Budget Office. That deal also included the sequestration trigger, which looks set to force the Pentagon to find another $600 billion in savings because the bipartisan "super committee" couldn't strike a deal.
"Make no mistake: the sequester is not meant to be policy. Rather, it is meant to be an unpalatable option that all parties want to avoid," Lew wrote at the time. As chief of staff, he will have an increased role in working with Congress to find a way around those cuts. He has also forcefully argued that Congress should not cut more from the federal budget than absolutely necessary.
Afghanistan: During his time at the State Department, Lew was the senior official responsible for the civilian surge in Afghanistan, which accompanied the administration's 2009 military surge there. That increase, which added over 1,000 civilians from across the U.S. government to the Afghanistan mission, is slated to wind down this year along with the military surge. But as the United States shifts its focus in Afghanistan from military to civilian involvement, Lew might be the man in the government who knows that issue best.
His religion: Throughout Lew's government career, he has maintained his commitment to Orthodox Judaism -- including the rules about not working on the Sabbath, which stretches from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. During his time at State, he observed the Sabbath religiously and refused to work during those hours.
But if there was a real emergency at the White House, Lew could decide to break the Sabbath. He reportedly did that once when serving as OMB director for President Bill Clinton. After refusing to take an urgent phone call from Clinton, as the story goes, Clinton said over the speakerphone "I know it is the Sabbath, but this is urgent. G-d would understand." Lew consulted with his rabbi, who told him that it's okay to answer the phone on the Sabbath when the president calls urgently.
Ethics: Lew is regarded by his peers as above reproach on ethical matters, but he did face one controversy when he reentered the White House as OMB director. In 2010, Lew came under fire because of a $944,578 bonus he took from Citigroup, where he was chief operating officer of Citigroup's Alternative Investments from 2006. Lew had already disclosed a $1.1 million compensation package covering his Citigroup work in 2007, but the amount of the second bonus wasn't disclosed until much later.
A State Department official defended Lew at the time as a man whose reputation for following ethics rules was well known. "If this city and government were filled with Jack Lews, we wouldn't need ethics rules," the official said, "because, like Hebrew National, Jack holds himself accountable to a higher authority."
His replacement: One thing nobody knows about Jack Lew is who will replace him at OMB. The president's 2012 budget request is being finalized right now, and its February release will kick start a whole season of squabbling and negotiating with Congress in what promises to be a partisan election year. Jeffrey Zients served as the acting director of the office before Lew was confirmed. Since then, Heather Higginbottom, former deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Counsel, was confirmed as OMB's deputy director. Given the recent GOP outrage over Obama's controversial recess appointment nomination of Richard Cordray to head the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, confirming a new OMB director won't be an easy sell any time soon.
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The State Department tried something new last Friday, answering selected questions posed via Twitter. Today, a Sudan human rights organization that was one of the selected questioners called the answer it got on Sudan policy "unconvincing," "unacceptable," "a broken record," and "condescending."
The Twitter press conference, where State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland will give answers to questions posed over Twitter following each Friday press briefing in January, is an experiment in State's ever-evolving strategy that it has dubbed "21st Century Statecraft."
Act for Sudan, an alliance of grassroots advocacy organizations, suggested one of the five tweets that was chosen and answered by Nuland, but the group is unhappy with the result.
The tweet, sent by @ObSilence but identical to the tweet suggested by Act for Sudan, was: "Why doesn't @StateDept support regime change in #Sudan where government-led genocide continues? Why Syria+Libya but not #Sudan?"
"Well, first of all, ObSilence, each country and each situation is different," Nuland responded. "But I will say that in Sudan, for many years, we have continued to press for concrete, meaningful, democratic reforms and accountability and an end to the violence. We have pushed hard for an end to the fighting in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and a full resolution of the Darfur conflict. Those responsible for crimes and crimes against humanity have to be held accountable."
Nuland went on to say that normalization between the United States and Sudan could only progress when violence ends, and she called on the government to work with civilians to resolve their issues. She also acknowledged that "deplorable human rights conditions and unacceptable practices of bombing innocent civilians and denying humanitarian access continue."
Act for Sudan put out a release today saying that several of its members were wholly unsatisfied by that answer, and believed that Nuland sidestepped the question in a way that downplayed the tragedy of the human rights situation in Sudan.
"Of course, we realize that all countries and situations are different, but does the United States of America have no standards regarding its responsibilities in the face of genocide and crimes against humanity?" said Eric Cohen, an Act for Sudan spokesman.
"In Libya, with thousand of civilians in danger, President Obama rightly authorized limited military action to help protect them, and publicly called for Libya's brutal dictator to step aside," said Cohen. "Why then, with millions of civilians endangered in Sudan by their own government, is the U.S. not leading the international community in its responsibility to protect the people of Sudan, by all means necessary, including military options? Why are we not leading the call for the ouster of Sudan's president and his cronies, who are indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes?"
Act for Sudan coordinated an open letter in November signed by 66 organizations to President Barack Obama asking the United States to urgently address civilian protection and humanitarian assistance for Sudanese under attack by their own government. Among other recommendations, the letter asked Obama to instruct the National Security Council to accelerate decisions regarding protection of Nuba, Blue Nile, and Darfuri populations from air attacks and to seriously consider the destruction of offensive aerial assets and the imposition of a no-fly zone. It also requests the immediate initiation of a cross-border emergency aid program to the Nuba Mountains, Darfur, Blue Nile and Abyei regions.
The Obama administration may be experimenting with unique ways to engage with the world through this Twitter press conference, but as this latest scuffle shows, social media remains a two-way street. And the Twitter world can now experience what reporters have known all along - answers given during press conferences rarely fully answer the question, much less satisfy the questioner.
The State Department is continuing to roll out big changes to its bureaucracy, inaugurating today a new "super office" to focus on protecting individuals by working outside of formal state-to-state channels, called the Office of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.
Similar to last month's rollout of the super office of economics, energy, and the environment, this new office combines new and existing bureaus at State to increase coordination and tackle these issues more efficiently. The changes were spelled out last year in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) and take effect today. The new structure will be described in State's brief shorthand as the "J" family.
The office's main mission is to improve the ways in which the U.S. government can promote the protection of individuals abroad and increase interactions with foreign civilian organizations.
"As we are seeing the increasing importance of using non-military tools to address transnational threats, it is very important for the State Department to develop its own capacity to address civilian security," said Maria Otero, the leader of the new office, in a Thursday interview with The Cable. Otero was previously the undersecretary of State for democracy and global affairs. In her new position, she will be charged with overseeing over 1,500 people all over the world.
"This piece focuses on protecting individuals. It focuses not just engaging state to state, but taking on the bold foreign policy statement that we need to engage also with players and actors outside of the traditional ones we've engaged in."
State will now be able to better coordinate its engagement with civil society, the private sector, and other non-governmental actors, she said. She referenced Egypt, where State works on security sector reform and human rights, as an example. Now officials can coordinate to "be able to engage not only with the SCAF but also with the bloggers," Otero said.
Other regions where Otero is looking to focus the attention of her new super office are Burma, Central America, Africa's Great Lakes region, and North Africa. Otero has visited Central America, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Tunisia, and several other countries over the last year.
Otero said the changes will allow State to do more without an increase in financial resources, but will require a light increase in staffing.
She will now be in charge of 5 functional bureaus and three offices. They are the brand new Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), to be led by nominated Assistant Secretary Rick Barton; the brand new Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT), to be led by Amb. Daniel Benjamin; the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), which is led by Assistant Secretary Michael Posner; the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), led by Assistant Secretary William Brownfield; and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) led by acting Assistant Secretary David Robinson.
Otero already had jurisdiction over DRL and PRM, but is now taking over INL from the office of Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of political affairs. The SCO and CT bureaus were offices reporting directly to Clinton before.
The J family also now includes the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP), led by Ambassador Luis CdeBaca; the Office of Global Criminal Justice (CGJ), formerly the Office of War Crimes Issues (WCI), led by Ambassador-at-Large Stephen Rapp; and the Office of Global Youth Issues, led by future Rhodes scholar, Yale Law graduate, and country-music recording artist Ronan Farrow.
Some in State see the recent bureaucratic changes there as part of Clinton's plan to institutionalize her priorities by turning individual offices that reported directly to her into permanent structures that will remain after her departure, which is widely expected to occur next year. Otero said the changes were a response to the changing diplomatic landscape, which is increasingly influenced by non-state actors.
"This is the implementation of the vision the secretary had," she said. "She's done a strategic review, she's made changes, and now the form is following the substance."
The organizational chart for the new office can be found here.
As the violence in Syria spirals out of control, top officials in President Barack Obama's administration are quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition, including gaming out the unlikely option of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and preparing for another major diplomatic initiative.
Critics on Capitol Hill accuse the Obama administration of being slow to react to the quickening deterioration of the security situation in Syria, where more than 5,000 people have died, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many lawmakers say the White House is once again "leading from behind," while the Turks, the French, and the Arab League -- which sent an observer mission to Syria this week -- pursue more aggressive strategies for pressuring the Assad regime. But U.S. officials insist that they are moving cautiously to avoid destabilizing Syria further, and to make sure they know as much as possible about the country's complex dynamics before getting more involved.
The administration does see the status quo in Syria as unsustainable. Bashar al-Assad's regime is a "dead man walking," State Department official Fred Hof said this month. Now, the administration is ramping up its policymaking machinery on the issue after several weeks of having no top-level administration meetings to discuss the Syria crisis. The National Security Council (NSC) has begun an informal, quiet interagency process to create and collect options for aiding the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.
The process, led by NSC Senior Director Steve Simon, involves only a few select officials from State, Defense, Treasury, and other relevant agencies. The group is unusually small, presumably to prevent media leaks, and the administration is not using the normal process of Interagency Policy Committee, Deputies Committee, or Principals Committee meetings, the officials said. (Another key official inside the discussions is Hof, who is leading the interactions with Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. allies.)
The options under consideration include establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya), according to the two officials, both of whom are familiar with the discussions but not in attendance at the meetings.
"The interagency is now looking at options for Syria, but it's still at the preliminary stage," one official said. "There are many people in the administration that realize the status quo is unsustainable and there is an internal recognition that existing financial sanctions are not going to bring down the Syrian regime in the near future."
After imposing several rounds of financial sanctions on Syrian regime leaders, the focus is now shifting to assisting the opposition directly. The interagency process is still ongoing and the NSC has tasked State and DOD to present options in the near future, but nothing has been decided, said the officials -- one of whom told The Cable that the administration was being intentionally careful out of concern about what comes next in Syria.
"Due to the incredible and far-reaching ramifications of the Syrian problem set, people are being very cautious," the official said. "The criticism could be we're not doing enough to change the status quo because we're leading from behind. But the reason we are being so cautious is because when you look at the possible ramifications, it's mindboggling."
A power vacuum in the country, loose weapons of mass destruction, a refugee crisis, and unrest across the region are just a few of the problems that could attend the collapse of the Assad regime, the official said.
"This isn't Libya. What happens in Libya stays in Libya, but that is not going to happen in Syria. The stakes are higher," the official said. "Right now, we see the risks of moving too fast as higher than the risks of moving too slow."
The option of establishing a humanitarian corridor is seen as extremely unlikely because it would require establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, which would likely involve large-scale attacks on Syrian air defense and military command-and-control systems.
"That's theoretically one of the options, but it's so far out of the realm that no one is thinking about that seriously at the moment," another administration official said.
Although the opposition is decidedly split on the issue, Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), earlier this month called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.
"Our main objective is finding mechanisms to protect civilians and stop the killing machine," said Ghalioun. "We say it is imperative to use forceful measures to force the regime to respect human rights."
Is the U.S. bark worse than its bite?
Rhetorically, the administration has been active in calling for Assad to step aside and emphasizing the rights of Syrian protesters, despite the lack of clear policy to achieve either result. "The United States continues to believe that the only way to bring about the change that the Syrian people deserve is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Dec. 21.
On Tuesday, Dec. 27, the administration hinted at stronger action if the Syrian government doesn't let the Arab League monitors do their work. "If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
The SNC, the primary organization representing the opposition, has been very clear that it is seeking more than rhetorical support from the United States and the international community. An extensive policy paper titled, "Safe Area for Syria," edited by SNC member Ausama Monajed, laid out the argument for armed intervention by the international community to aid Syrian civilians.
"The Syrian National Council (SNC) is entering a critical phase in the Syrian revolution whereby the hope of a continued campaign of passive resistance to an exceptionally brutal and unrestrained regime is becoming more and more akin to a suicide pact," the paper stated.
But Washington is uncomfortable acting in concert with the SNC: Officials say there is a lack of confidence that the SNC, which is strongly influenced by expatriate Syrians, has the full support of the internal opposition. U.S. officials are also wary of supporting the Syria Free Army, made up of Syrian military defectors and armed locals, as they do not want to be seen as becoming militarily engaged against the regime -- a story line they fear that Assad could use for his own propaganda, officials said.
There is also some internal bureaucratic wrangling at play. This summer, when the issue of sending emergency medical equipment into Syria came up in a formal interagency meeting, disputes over jurisdiction stalled progress on the discussion, officials told The Cable. No medical aid was sent.
For now, the administration is content to let the Arab League monitoring mission play out and await its Jan. 20 report. The officials said that the administration hopes to use the report to begin a new diplomatic initiative in late January at the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad and authorize direct assistance to the opposition.
The officials acknowledged that this new initiative could fail due to Russian support for the Assad regime. If that occurs, the administration would work with its allies such as France and Turkey to establish their own justification for non-military humanitarian intervention in Syria, based on evidence from the Arab League report and other independent reporting on Assad's human rights abuses. This process could take weeks, however, meaning that material assistance from the United States to the Syrian opposition probably wouldn't flow at least until late February or early March. Between now and then, hundreds or even thousands more could be killed.
There is also disagreement within the administration about whether the Arab League observer mission is credible and objective.
"This is an Arab issue right now, and the Arab League is really showing initiative for the first time in a long time," said one administration official.
"[The Arab League monitoring mission] is all Kabuki theatre," said another administration official who does not work directly on Syria. "We're intentionally setting the bar too high [for intervention] as means of maintaining the status quo, which is to do nothing."
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the administration was caught offguard by how the opposition became militarized so quickly. The administration's message had been to urge the opposition to remain peaceful, but that ship has now sailed, he said.
"We have a pretty strong policy of not engaging the Syria Free Army directly, because earlier it was agreed that peaceful protesters had the moral high ground over the regime and were more able to encourage defections," he said. "But there was no clear light at the end of that peaceful protest strategy. We assumed, incorrectly, that the civil resistance strategies used in Egypt and Tunisia were being adopted by the Syrian opposition, but that didn't happen."
Most experts in Washington have a deep skepticism toward the Arab League monitoring mission. For one thing, it is led by a Sudanese general who has been accused of founding the Arab militias that wreaked havoc in Darfur. Also, many doubt that 150 monitors that will eventually be in Syria can cover the vast number of protests and monitor such a large country.
The Assad regime has also been accused of subverting the monitoring mission by moving political prisoners to military sites that are off-limits to monitors, repositioning tanks away from cities only when monitors are present, and having soldiers pose as police to downplay the military's role in cracking down on the protesters.
"It seems awfully risky for the U.S. to be putting its chips all in on that mission," said Tony Badran, a research fellow with the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "There never was a serious mechanism for it to be a strong initiative."
Badran said that the Arab League monitoring mission just gives the Assad regime time and space to maneuver, and provides Russia with another excuse to delay international action on Syria.
"Now you understand why the Russians pushed the Syrians to accept the monitors," he said. "It allows the Syrians to delay the emergence of consensus."
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the administration is trying to balance the value of protecting civilians with the interests of trying to ensure a measure of stability in Syria.
"The biggest thing is extensive consultation with as many international allies as possible. That's another feature of this administration," said Katulis. "And when change does come to Syria, the Syrians have to own it."
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates championed a rebalancing of foreign policy funding away from the military, arguing that the United States should pool soldiers' and diplomats' shared resources to better manage projects in warzones. Now, after his departure, the first true test of that idea is going into effect.
Gates, who famously warned in 2008 of the "creeping militarization" of U.S. foreign policy, was talking about his idea for a new $2 billion pooled fund that State and Defense would share for security capacity building, stabilization, and conflict prevention in dangerous areas of the world, where both the military and the diplomatic core operate, until his departure this year.
The Obama administration acted on that idea this year by proposing a $50 million starter fund in its fiscal 2012 budget request which it called the Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF), meant for responding to "urgent and emergent challenges." The idea is that approval to spend the money would require the approval of both secretaries, but the State Department would be more or less in charge.
"Secretary Gates called for pooled funding and this is the direct result of that and the first test of whether State and DOD can really work together on this kind of thing," a senior State Department official said in an interview with The Cable. "This is really an example of how State and DOD, rather than engage in bureaucratic gamesmanship, have decided to work together to solve these problems."
"For us, GSCF is the new model," the official said. "This is the model we think makes the most sense, particularly in budget-constrained times."
The new GSCF office will have a State Department official as a director, a Pentagon official as a deputy director, and will be located at the State Department, the official said. Nobody has been selected for the positions yet. The rough model for the office is the interagency "Pakistan cell," which manages various aspects of Pakistan funding now.
There's only one hitch: Congress. In the fiscal 2012 budget bill passed by Congress last week and signed by President Barack Obama, the $50 million to start GCSF was omitted. But Congress did give the administration the authority to start the project using funding from other accounts, including money earmarked for the Pakistani military.
Accordingly, GSCF will be funded this year by money appropriated to Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and what's called the Pakistani Counterinsurgency Capability Fund (PCCF), a pool of cash that is used to reimburse the Pakistani military for money it spends helping the United States fight Islamic extremists.
The PCCF program, meanwhile, is another ongoing saga in the jostling between State and DOD for control over money and power in countries where they both operate.
Originally housed at the Pentagon as the Pakistani Counterinsurgency Fund (PCF), the program was originally supposed to be transferred over to State in 2009. But at that time, State didn't have the capacity to manage it, so the transfer was delayed. In 2010, State finally took over the program, only to lose it again in 2011 during the last-minute budget slashing that accompanied the April 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling. Now for 2012, the program is back at State again.
State will receive $850 million for PCCF in fiscal 2012, and this year State put the funding in its Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. By placing the program in the OCO account, the money is not counted as part of State's regular budget and therefore is more protected from the budget-cutting knives on Capitol Hill. The Pentagon is still heavily involved: In order to get the money to the Pakistani military, State actually passes the funds through the Pentagon, which implements the program on the ground by doling out the cash to the Pakistani army.
Passing the PCCF funds though the Pentagon this year will subject them to new policy restrictions in the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill that require the administration to certify that Pakistan is using the money to fight extremists, rather than to build up conventional forces opposite India.
"The administration did have concerns that [these new restrictions] would hinder the flexibility of the program, but the Congress, obviously concerned about the nature of our relationship with Pakistan, insisted on these requirements," the State Department official said.
But how do you certify the Pakistanis are spending the money as intended? "That's going to be the issue," the official said.
While Washington grappled with the consequences of Kim Jong Il's death, the United States, Japan, and India held the first meeting of what is shaping up to be a robust trilateral dialogue -- but all sides have been quick to say that it's not aimed at isolating China.
The four-hour meeting was held at the State Department on Dec. 19, and the U.S. delegation was led by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Bob Blake. Other U.S. officials in attendance included State Department Policy Planning Director Jake Sullivan, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Affairs Peter Lavoy, and NSC Senior Director for Strategic Planning Derek Chollet.
The Japanese contingent was led by Koji Tsuruoka, deputy vice minister for foreign policy, who was visiting Washington with Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba. The Indians flew in two officials, Joint Secretary for the Americas Jawed Ashraf and Joint Secretary for East Asia Gautam Bambawale.
Two State Department officials described the meeting for The Cable. "What I really loved about it was that it just seemed like a very natural conversation among friends," one of the officials said. "The amazing thing about our governments is that we really have shared values. That's the foundation of it all. That's the glue that binds us together."
The officials defined those shared values as democracy, human rights, rule of law, transparency, open markets, freedom of navigation, and an interest in international development work. "There wasn't a moment of dissonance in the whole thing," the official said. "The challenge now is to figure out what specifically we can focus on."
This was the first trilateral meeting between the three countries; the main objective of which was to set the foundation for future talks, discuss what issues would be on the agenda going forward, and set the goal of meeting again in Tokyo next year.
Topics that were discussed inside the meeting included Afghanistan, where Japan and India are large donors, the recent East Asia Summit, Central Asia, and Burma.
"We talked about how we can work together within all these Asian organizations to advance our shared values ... and what can do to help improve the workings of all these various fora," the State Department official said. "We agreed that we need to focus our collective efforts in Afghanistan to make sure all the values we share in Afghanistan are upheld and observed."
The U.S.-Japan-India trilateral dialogue is just the latest of the "mini-laterals" that the United States has undertaken recently. These groupings, which are smaller than often cumbersome multilateral groups, are becoming a preferred way for the United States to build consensus around policies with friends and allies.
There is another trilateral strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, and Australia that has been ongoing for five years, and now has half a dozen working groups. The United States and India have had a bilateral dialogue about East Asia for over two years now, led by Campbell and Blake. That dialogue has held four official meetings.
The State Department official said the United States is interested in setting up some "mini-lateral" structures that include China. U.S. policymakers also want to start a U.S.-India-China trilateral dialogue, the official said, but the Chinese won't sign on.
"Our Indian friends are happy to do it, we're willing to do it, but our Chinese friends are a little wary," the official said. The Japanese have also put forth the idea of a U.S.-Japan-China trilateral dialogue.
The State Department wants to be clear that this week's meetings were not about China. In fact, they said that the rise of China and how to deal with it wasn't discussed at the Dec. 19 trilateral meetings.
"We did talk about China, but it was in the context of other things," the official said. "We were actually looking for things we could do jointly with China."
Experts said that even if the trilateral dialogue wasn't about China, the fact that all three countries are cooperating in the effort to deal with China's rise looms over the discussions.
"The growing cooperation with India and Japan is driven by China's rise, there's no doubt about that. That doesn't mean it's directly aimed at China," said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). "They are all trying to respond to China's rise but not antagonizing China. From China's perspective, any cooperation is encirclement."
The initial Chinese reaction to the meeting was cautious. "U.S., Japan and India are countries with great influence in the Asia-Pacific region. We hope the trilateral meeting will be conducive to regional peace and stability," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters.
Countries like India are interested in deepening their ties with China as well as the United States, but joining U.S.-brokered diplomatic architectures allows India to approach its engagement with China from a position of greater strength, said Cronin.
He also said that the effort was part of the U.S. goal of increased burden sharing with India, to offset the financial cost of maintaining the U.S. presence in East Asia.
"The U.S. is not looking to spend a fortune, it's looking to be a facilitator," he said. "It brings India into East Asia and Japan into the Indian Ocean and it does that at a very low cost to the United States."
The State Department officials acknowledged that part of the driving force behind encouraging India to take on more responsibility was to shift some of the financial responsibility to countries whose economies are on the rise.
"The Indian government, for the first time in a long time, has money. It's a country that can greatly complement U.S. efforts in the region.... This theme of them being a net provider of security takes on more significance when all of a sudden they finally have the resources to expand their role," the official said.
"The whole world has been a free-rider on the United States for so long, if the Indians can help with that in an era when we face budgetary constraints, the more the better," the official said. "The U.S. has had the luxury in the past of going it alone, but it certainly makes sense to do it with your friends."
Vice President Joe Biden made waves this week when he told Newsweek that "the Taliban per se is not our enemy." The State Department said this week it agrees with that assertion, as new reports surfaced that an initial confidence building deal with the Taliban in the works had fallen apart
"There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests," Biden said. "If, in fact, the Taliban is able to collapse the existing government, which is cooperating with us in keeping the bad guys from being able to do damage to us, then that becomes a problem for us."
Biden went on to say that there is a dual-track policy in place: One track is continuing to put pressure on al Qaeda, and the other is convincing the Taliban that reconciliation and a renunciation of international terrorism is in its best interests.
Republicans pounced on Biden's remarks. GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney tweeted that the comments were "an outrageous affront to our troops carrying on the fight in Afghanistan." Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told Fox News that the comments were an "insult to the men and women who are serving today."
White House spokesman Jay Carney, however, backed up Biden, saying, "It is a simple fact that we went into Afghanistan because of the attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. We are there now to ultimately defeat al Qaeda, to stabilize Afghanistan and stabilize it in part so that al Qaeda or other terrorists who have as their aim attacks on the United States cannot establish a foothold again in that country."
The Cable asked State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland if she agreed with Biden that the Taliban were not "per se" the enemy of the United States.
"Obviously we've made clear that those Taliban who are willing to come off the battlefield, renounce violence, break ties with al Qaeda, support the constitution of Afghanistan, be part of a political process -- we would support reconciliation with them led by the Afghans," Nuland said. "We're less interested in what folks call themselves, as we've said in other parts of the world. We're more interested in what they do and in the actions that they take."
The Washington Post reported today that months-long negotiations between the United States and the Taliban have broken down. According to the Post, the deal would have included the transfer of five Afghans out of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, in exchange for the Taliban publicly renouncing international terrorism. The Taliban prisoners would have been allowed to live under house arrest in Qatar , where the Taliban plan to open an office.
The deal reportedly broke down due to the objections of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. On Dec. 18, Karzai told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that months of negotiations with the Taliban were revealed to be a farce when the purported Taliban negotiators assassinated Karzai's top negotiator, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
"The assassination of President Rabbani brought us in a shock to the recognition that we were actually talking to nobody, that those who came in the name of the peace process were assassins, were killers, were terrorists rather than negotiators," Karzai said.
"We've seen ups, and we've seen significant downs in the Afghans' efforts to create a reconciliation process," Nuland said on Dec. 19, before the reports of the secret negotiations surfaced. "I mean, the Rabbani assassination was obviously a very serious step backwards. With regard to, you know, whether we're going to have serious steps forward, I think, you know, only time will tell."
The Pentagon issued its report on the Nov. 25 raid where NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at an outpost along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, admitting that the U.S. military made mistakes that led to the incident. The Pentagon and State Department "deeply regret" the attack, but refuse to accede to Pakistani demands they issue an explicit apology.
"For the loss of life -- and for the lack of proper coordination between U.S. and Pakistani forces that contributed to those losses -- we express our deepest regret," the Pentagon said in a Thursday statement about the incident, which has pushed U.S.-Pakistani relations to new lows and has resulted in Pakistan cutting off supply lines for NATO forces in Afghanistan, which are still closed.
U.S. and NATO investigators found that the NATO forces "acted in self defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon." The investigators also determined "there was no intentional effort to target persons or places known to be part of the Pakistani military, or to deliberately provide inaccurate location information to Pakistani officials."
That quote refers to the Pakistani claim that NATO identified a location for the attack nine miles away from where they were actually attacking, which is what led to Pakistan telling NATO there were no Pakistani troops there troops in the area they were attacking.
The NATO explanation of the incident directly conflicts with the Pakistani military's own account of the incident, as explained by a Pakistani defense official to reporters in Washington last week. Pakistan's military has concluded that the NATO helicopters and planes strafed two Pakistani outposts intentionally, and they say that repeated pleas by Pakistani officials to halt the operation as it was being carried out were ignored.
At a Thursday morning briefing, Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark, who led the investigation, acknowledged that NATO was using the wrong map template and therefore gave the Pakistanis the wrong location during the attack
Clark also said there was reluctance to share the information about the ongoing attack with the Pakistani side because of an "overarching lack of trust" between the two militaries. The report said both sides had made mistakes during the incident due to poor coordination and communication.
At the State Department today, reporters pressed spokesman Mark Toner to explain why the U.S. government won't just say "I'm sorry," as the Pakistanis are demanding.
"We've expressed our deep regret for the loss of life and for the lack of proper coordination between the U.S. and Pakistani forces that contributed to these losses. And you know, we do accept responsibility for the mistakes that we made," said Toner. "I think there's a shared responsibility in this incident."
The New York Times reported last month that the State Department and U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter had urged the White House to issue an apology to quell Pakistani outrage, at both the official and the popular level, but the Pentagon objected.
The U.S. government is working hard behind the scenes to smooth over relations. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey called Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani on Wednesday and offered to send a briefing team to Islamabad. CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis also called Kayani. Munter spoke with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.
After being pressed several times on the question of the difference between expressing "regret" and issuing an "apology," Toner finally parsed it out the best he could.
"I think ‘we regret' speaks to a sense of sympathy with the Pakistani people, I mean, in this case, but more broadly with the people affected by any incident or tragedy and, you know, speaks to the fact that we're accepting responsibility for any of our actions that may have contributed to it," said Toner. "I don't know -- an apology -- you know, you can figure that out for your own. I can only say what we're trying to express through this investigation and through the conclusion of this investigation."
"It's pretty clear from this entire conversation that you're under orders not to use the words ‘sorry' or ‘apologize,'" one reporter said to Toner.
Toner's only response to that was: "Ok. Next question?"
Have you seen this man, accused al Qaeda financier Yasin al-Suri? If so, information leading to his location, suspected to be inside Iran, will get you up to $10 million from the U.S. government.
Suri, also known as Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, is one of six al Qaeda officials linked to Iran that the U.S. Treasury Department designated for sanctions back in July. According to two U.S. officials who briefed reporters today, he stands at the center of the link between the Iranian government and al Qaeda. That's why the State and Treasury Departments are putting out this bounty as part of their Rewards for Justice program.
"From his sanctuary inside Iran, he has moved terrorist recruits through Iran to al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also arranged for the release of al Qaeda operatives from Iranian prisons and their transfer to Pakistan. And he has funneled significant amounts of money through Iran to AQ leadership in Afghanistan and Iraq," said Robert A. Hartung, assistant director for threat investigations and analysis at State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. "Locating al-Suri and shutting down his operations would eliminate a significant financial resource for al Qaeda."
The announcement highlights the U.S. government's strategy of exposing the links between the Iranian government and al Qaeda.
"We have reliable information indicating that there is an agreement between the Iranian government and this al Qaeda network [led by Suri]," said Eytan Fisch, Treasury's assistant director of terrorism and financial intelligence. This is the first reward put forth for a terrorist financier, he added.
But Fisch couldn't say whether the sanctions levied against Iran-linked al Qaeda operatives in July have yielded any results. The sanctions only apply to funds held in the United States, and Treasury won't say if they have found any such funds.
"We don't generally comment on whether funds are frozen and if so, how much," said Fisch,
"That kind of makes it impossible to tell whether it has actually been effective," noted AP reporter Matt Lee.
It's also unclear what the U.S. government would do if and when Suri's location becomes known. If he is living inside Iran with the assistance of the Iranian government, would the U.S. government go in and get him?
"Once we receive information, that's provided to other government agencies to handle that information and decide how to act," said Hartung. "I can't answer questions about what they will do with that information."
Several reporters at the briefing noted that the $10 million reward is much higher than the "hundreds of thousands of dollars" that Fisch said Suri has alleged to have moved to al Qaeda. Wouldn't it be a financially smart decision for al Qaeda to turn him in itself, and pocket the profit?
"In general terms, anyone is available to receive a reward," said Hartung. He said there is some review of award recipients, but didn't give any details.
"So Mullah Omar, if he turns this guy in, isn't going to get the reward?" asked Lee.
"Correct," replied State Department spokesman Mark Toner. "And vice-versa."
If any Cable readers have a tip on Suri's location, you can tell the U.S. government by going to www.rewardsforjustice.net, e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or calling the RFJ tip line in Afghanistan at 0800 108 600. The program has paid more than $100 million to more than 70 people since it began in 1984, Hartung said.
Other aliases used by Suri include: Yassen al-Suri, Izz al-Din Abd al-Farid Khalil, and Zayn al-Abadin. The only other two alleged terrorists who have warranted a $10 million award are Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Abu Du'a, the alleged head of al Qaeda in Iraq.
The Iraqi government has promised to shutter Camp Ashraf -- the home of the Iranian dissident group Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK) -- by Dec. 31. Now, the United Nations and the State Department are scrambling to move the MEK to another location inside Iraq, which just may be a former U.S. military base.
The saga puts the United Nations and President Barack Obama's administration in the middle of a struggle between the Iraqi government, a new and fragile ally, and the MEK, a persecuted group that is also on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The Marxist-Islamist group, which was formed in 1965, was used by Saddam Hussein to attack the Iranian government during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and has been implicated in the deaths of U.S. military personnel and civilians. The new Iraqi government has been trying to evict them from Camp Ashraf since the United States toppled Saddam in 2003. The U.S. military guarded the outside of the camp until handing over external security to the Iraqis in 2009. The Iraqi Army has since tried twice to enter Camp Ashraf, resulting in bloody clashes with the MEK both times.
Now the United Nations, led by Martin Kobler, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), is working with the State Department to convince the Iraqi government and the MEK to open up a new home for MEK members inside Iraq, at a facility near the Baghdad airport. U.S. officials won't confirm, but also won't deny, that facility is a U.S. military base that was recently handed over to the Iraqis.
"Ambassador Kobler and we are working flat out to put together the deal for the beginning of the implementation of his plan, which is to move the people in Camp Ashraf to a new facility," a State Department official told reporters in a special Monday briefing. The United Nations and State are hoping that if an agreement is reached, the Iraqi government will push back the deadline and not invade Camp Ashraf on Dec. 31 and forcibly extradite the MEK to Iran. But time is running out.
"Time is extraordinarily short," the State Department official said. "Oh yes, we're talking days."
The State Department official said the new facility under discussion is near the Baghdad airport, and has extensive infrastructure that "is very well known to the United States." Pressed by The Cable, the official refused to confirm that it was a former U.S. military base, but wouldn't deny it either. "It's a highly credible facility," the official said.
The official could not say if there was any precedent for a group that the United States labels a foreign terrorist organization being housed in a facility built by the U.S. military with U.S. taxpayer dollars, but emphasized that all U.S. military installations have now been turned over to the Iraqi government. The Victory Base Complex near the airport has several facilities that could be used for the Camp Ashraf residents.
Nobody knows how many people are in Camp Ashraf, because nobody can go inside. The residents are also suspected to be well armed. There could be as many as 3,200 people there, according to the State Department. If they are evicted from the camp, some will voluntarily go back to Iran and some will go to other countries. Others still may not actually be MEK members but could be living there for their own reason, making their relocation easier, the official said. The unknown number of "card-carrying members" of the MEK who can't or won't be relocated are the ones who the United Nations and State are trying to move to the new camp.
The United Nations and the Iraqi government have agreed on the basic way forward, but the MEK is not on board, the State Department official said. The Iraqi government won't talk directly to the MEK, and the MEK leadership living in Paris may have different priorities than the people actually living in Camp Ashraf.
Of course, the Iraqis have been warning for months that they would close Camp Ashraf by the end of the year. So why is everybody scrambling in the last two weeks? The State Department is placing the blame squarely on the MEK.
"For a long time, the MEK position was ‘here we are and here we stay, period,'" a State Department official said. "In recent days we've had the first signs that the MEK is finally, at long last, beginning to engage in a serious way, rather than simply politically through its many, many advocates. This is a good sign."
Reporters at the briefing wondered why the United Nations and State think simply relocating the MEK to another facility will solve the problem of its status as a terrorist group whose members are unable to get refugee status in a country where they are not welcome. The official said the new facility would be better because it would give the Iraqi government some control over what goes on there.
"[Camp Ashraf] is a state within a state. It is run by the MEK and when anybody else tries to enter, well, we've seen what occurs," one State Department official said, explaining that the new camp would have some type of Iraqi government administration and yet not be in total control of the MEK. "Iraqi soveriegnty will prevail with a robust set or arrangements and U.N. monitoring."
Another reason the United Nations and State are pushing for the MEK to be moved from Camp Ashraf to another facility is that the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has refused to give refugee status to Ashraf residents because of the MEK's tight control over the people there.
"Many international observers have regarding the current facility at Camp Ashraf as a coercive environment. Independent observers have called it a cult," the State Department said. "The UNHCR requires an atmosphere in which people can make their own choice free of group pressure. What's happened in Camp Ashraf has not been conducive to this."
Advocating for the MEK is a tricky proposition for the State Department, because the organization is on its list of foreign terrorist organizations. The MEK has been lobbying hard for its removal from that list and State's review of their status has been "ongoing" for years.
As part of its multi-million dollar lobbying effort, the MEK has paid dozens of top U.S. officials and former officials to speak on its behalf, sometimes at rallies on the State Department's doorstep. MEK supporters have been stationed outside the State Department non-stop for months now, and are even showing up at Congressional hearings.
Their list of advocates, most who have admitted being paid, includes Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former CIA Deputy Director of Clandestine Operations John Sano, former National Security Advisor James Jones, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, Gen. Anthony Zinni, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, former Sen. Evan Bayh, and many others.
The State Department officials didn't say outright that these officials are making the challenge of dealing with the MEK worse by shilling for the organization around Washington. But they did call on the MEK's paid representatives to use whatever clout they have to urge the MEK to go along with the relocation now.
"It is important for those advocates to support a solution that is feasible. Because maximalist demands and echoing a kind of martyrdom and complex of defiance and blood will produce the results they fear. Now is the time for everybody who says they want a peaceful solution to back that solution right now," the official said.
But what happens after the MEK moves to the new facility, even if the current deal is worked out in time? What's the plan to deal with these people over the long run?
"Right now our priority is in a successful, peaceful relocation," the State Department official said. "One huge problem at a time."
UPDATE: The AP reported has just reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has decided to grant a 6-month extenstion on the closing of Camp Ashraf, although he is backdating the start of the extension to November.
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images
As of last Friday, President Barack Obama's administration was considering announcing a new package of food aid to North Korea and working toward the resumption of talks about North Korea's nuclear program. Today, that whole plan has been upended due to the death of Kim Jong Il, forcing the administration to grapple with a whole new set of North Korea problems.
On Dec. 15-16, the State Department's Special Envoy for Human Rights Bob King met with North Korean foreign ministry official Ri Gun in Beijing to work out the details for monitoring the distribution of huge new shipments of food aid from the United States to North Korea, which claims to be in dire need. The South Korean press reported on Dec. 17 that an agreement had been struck for the United States to send 20,000 tons of food aid a month to North Korea for the next 12 months, or a grand total of 240,000 tons of food assistance.
The U.S. Special Representative on North Korea Glyn Davies was also in Beijing Dec. 15 and 16, coincidentally. On Dec. 17, news reports quoted an anonymous diplomatic source as saying that Pyongyang had agreed to suspend uranium enrichment -- one of Washington's key demands for the resumption of Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program, which have been defunct since 2008. Davies was supposed to travel to Beijing to firm up the details of that arrangement with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan on Dec. 22.
All of those arrangements are now on hold indefinitely, as the United States regroups with allies Japan and South Korea to try to assess the current situation inside North Korea, prepare for the downside risk of a violent transition, and figure out how to proceed in dealing with a regime that has nuclear weapons and a very uncertain future.
"Where we were headed was the giving of food aid, the restart of the [prisoner of war] remains recovery project (to return U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean war), and these would be the two goodies that North Korea would get to undertake the pre-steps to restarting the Six Party Talks. The administration was going to announce the food aid this week and Davies was supposed to be in Beijing by Thursday," said Victor Cha, former Asia director at the National Security Council, who now holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Now we've got a whole new problem, not just seeing if we can get back to where we were Friday," said Cha. "This transition may not go well. It completely changes the whole character of the North Korea problem overnight. A runaway nuclear program, the sudden death of Kim Jong Il, and we know nothing about the new leadership. You can't imagine a worse problem than this."
At today's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland emphasized that no final decisions had been made on granting food aid to North Korea or sending Davies to Beijing. In fact, she said that there was supposed to be a high-level interagency meeting today at the White House with King and Davies to make these very decisions.
That meeting did take place early on Monday, but did not focus on food aid, uranium enrichment, the Six Party talks, or any other bilateral issue, according to Nuland.
"Meetings that might have happened today with our travelers who just got back instead were focused on maintaining close contact with our other partners in the Six Party Talks and on ensuring calm and regional stability on the peninsula," Nuland said. "So we have yet to have the internal review of these issues that we need to have."
Nuland also said that the Obama administration wanted "to be respectful of the North Korean period of mourning," so no further negotiations are expected for a while. North Korea does not intend to invite foreign delegations to Kim's Dec. 28 funeral.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was briefed on the situation in North Korea twice on Sunday night by Davies and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. She just happened to be meeting Monday at the State Department with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, after which told reporters, "We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea, as well as in ensuring regional peace and stability."
Clinton said that Obama had spoken with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Sunday night, and officials were reaching out to their counterparts in Russia and China as well. Clinton made no mention of the recent U.S.-North Korea bilateral diplomacy, nor did she reiterate calls for North Korea to honor its previous agreements to denuclearize and rejoin multilateral talks on that issue.
Clinton and Gemba took no questions at their post-meeting "press conference."
One Asia hand close to the administration told The Cable today that the bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea were even more advanced than had been reported. According to this expert, the North Koreans had also discussed a moratorium on missile testing, which would have been announced after the resumption of the Six Party Talks. The North Koreans were also asking the United States to resume its assistance in building a light water commercial nuclear reactor in North Korea, an idea that has been part of past negotiations but was scuttled when the 1994 Agreed Framework, which was meant to govern North Korea's nuclear program, broke down in 2002.
That 1994 agreement is seen by some as a positive indicator that progress can be made with North Korea despite a leadership transition. The agreement was signed only months after Kim Jong Il took power following the death of his father, Kim Il Sung.
"We want to continue forward and see if there's continuity in their policy," the Asia hand said.. "If we're in a holding pattern for too long, things could shift in the other direction. That's the danger here."
If and when the food aid decision finally comes, it will be controversial here in Washington. Several GOP senators are opposed to what they see as bribing the North Koreans to come back to the negotiating table. In fact, some senators will likely point to assurances the administration gave Congress that it wouldn't bribe North Korea, which were made as part of the deal to confirm the U.S. envoy to South Korea, Sung Kim, in October.
The State Department always claims that food aid decisions are made on humanitarian grounds and not linked to policy decisions, but the timing of the negotiations is not seen as a coincidence by those on Capitol Hill.
"Food aid is always classified as separate, however, if the press reports are accurate it is clear that the administration was prepared to link food aid to a suspension of North Korea's uranium enrichment program," one Senate GOP aide told The Cable. "Of course food aid is a financial reward.... Leave it to North Korea -- Kim's untimely death -- to save the administration from its own worst impulses. How long they can resist repeating the mistakes of 1994 remains to be seen."
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Former National Security Advisor Jim Jones called today for quick action on the Keystone XL pipeline construction, directly opposing the White House he worked for only a few months ago.
Jones, who rarely speaks in public and almost never contradicts his former boss President Barack Obama, lashed out against the administration in a press call and warned of grave consequences to U.S. national security if the project to build the pipeline doesn't move forward immediately. The call was sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute and Jones was joined on the call by API President and CEO Jack Gerard.
"In a tightly contested global economy, where securing energy resources is a national must, we should be able to act with speed and agility. And any threat to this project, by delay or otherwise, would constitute a significant setback," said Jones. "The failure to [move forward with the project] will prolong the risk to our economy and our energy security" and "send the wrong message to job creators."
The comments come at the worst possible moment for the Obama administration, which is trying to beat back an effort from congressional Republicans to attach language that would force a decision on the pipeline to legislation that extends unemployment insurance and the payroll tax holiday for middle class Americans.
Obama has promised to veto any bill that comes to his desk with the Keystone XL pipeline language, and the State Department has said that if it is forced to come to a quick decision on the pipeline, that decision would be no because there has not been enough time to properly evaluate environmental and logistical considerations.
The Cable asked Jones if he was getting paid by API for supporting its cause. Jones said he was not getting paid, and was speaking out because he believed in the pipeline cause.
"I've known Jack Gerard for a number of years... and when he called me a few days ago and asked me if I was willing to participate in this because of my interest in energy issues, I agreed to do so," Jones said.
Jones said the project was an important piece of the U.S.-Canada relationship and that if the United States doesn't act, Canada may decide to cancel the project and give its energy resources to the Chinese. He also said if they United States doesn't move forward with the pipeline, that would be another signal of fading U.S. leadership in the world.
"If we get to a point where the nation cannot bring itself to do, for whatever reason, those things that we all know is in our national interest... then we are definitely in a period of decline in terms of our global leadership and in terms of our ability to compete in the 21st century," said Jones.
Jones said that he was not in touch with the administration directly on this issue, but that he told Obama personally just before resigning that Obama had a chance to be the "energy president," but was failing to distinguish himself on the issue.
"I do not think the United States has a comprehensive strategy for energy writ large and that's a critical shortfall. Nor do I think we are properly organized," Jones said. "In my last few days I communicated that to the president."
UPDATE: A reader passes on this 2008 article from ThinkProgress that points out Jones was the Institute for 21st Century Energy, a organization closely affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. According to the article, Jones' Transition Plan at the Institute "calls for billions of dollars in subsidies for the nuclear and coal industry, a dramatic expansion in domestic oil and natural gas drilling into protected areas, and massive new energy industry tax breaks and loopholes."
NATO forces deliberately attacked two Pakistani Army outposts and ignored established rules of cooperation in the Nov. 26 assault that resulted in the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers, a senior Pakistani defense official said today.
The attack sparked the latest rift in the sinking U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The Pakistani government shut down NATO's supply lines into Afghanistan in response to the attack, refused to attend the Bonn conference on Afghanistan reconstruction this month, and indicated it would undertake a full review of its security cooperation with NATO and the United States. The U.S. government and the Obama administration expressed private "condolences" for the attack, which is currently under investigation by NATO, but has refused to explicitly apologize.
A senior defense official at the Pakistani embassy in Washington invited a group of national security reporters on Thursday morning to give an extensive briefing on the events of Nov. 26 -- from the Pakistani point of view.
The official placed the blame squarely on NATO forces and said it was completely impossible that the killings were accidental.
"I have a story to tell and this is the story of those brave people who left us in the middle of a cold, November night on a barren mountain top," the official said, before going into intricate details of what he called the "Mohmand Incident," named after the region where the attack took place.
The attack started at about midnight, the official said, with a helicopter assault on the Pakistani outpost named "Volcano," a small bunker on a mountain ridge near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pakistani soldiers at the neighboring "Boulder" outpost responded by firing at the helicopters, after which helicopters and fixed-wing NATO aircraft strafed both outposts, destroying them, the official said.
The Pakistani conclusion that this was a "deliberate" attack is based on the belief that these areas had been cleared of terrorist activity, that there was no indication of insurgent activity at the time, and that there was no way to mistake the Pakistani outposts as terrorist encampments, the official argued.
"This was in plain view on a barren ridge, not a place terrorists would be inclined to use as a hideout," the official said.
Moreover, NATO and Pakistani officials had put in place an intricate system of operational information sharing that was completely violated, according to the official, which reinforced the Pakistani conclusion that the attack was intentional.
The official refused to speculate as to why NATO would deliberately attack and kill two dozen Pakistani soldiers, only saying that this was the official conclusion of the Pakistani military leadership.
The Pakistani official also claimed that the NATO official in charge at the nearby Pakistani-NATO coordination center had apologized for giving the Pakistani Army incomplete and incorrect information regarding where NATO forces were attacking. In fact, the official claimed that the apology came in the middle of the attack, but that the NATO airplanes kept attacking.
According to the official, NATO officials notified the Pakistani side of the operation just before it began, but gave Pakistan incorrect coordinates that indicated it was actually taking place nine miles to the north of the actual attack site. The Pakistanis asked NATO to delay the operation amid the confusion, the official said, but the NATO official in charge refused, only to apologize later as the attack was taking place.
About an hour into the attack, at approximately 1 a.m., NATO then told the Pakistani side the attack had stopped, the official said, but the Pakistanis later discovered it continued until about 2:15 a.m.
"This was at least one hour and 10 minutes beyond when our friends in NATO told us that the helicopters had pulled back," the official said. "The actual magnitude of this tragedy we knew only when day broke."
Well-established operating procedures should have dictated that the attack stop as soon as communications with the Pakistani forces in the area were established, but that didn't happen, the official said.
"We are supposed to share information about impending operations regardless of size.... And in case we are fired upon, the responsibility to take action is on the country from where the fire is originating," the official said. "It's not for the U.S. military to engage. NATO is supposed to pass on the information regarding the point of origin [of the fire]."
The official also rejected the idea that the NATO helicopters were responding to fire coming from the Pakistani side or chasing insurgents as part of some sort of hot pursuit.
"There was no prior firefight," the official said.
NATO is expected to release the results of its own investigation into the assault next week, and the Pakistani claims today could be an attempt to pre-empt that announcement by establishing its own narrative beforehand.
Either way, the fallout from the incident has already had a detrimental effect on Pakistani military and popular opinion toward cooperation with NATO and U.S. military forces.
"There is a sense of outrage," the official said. "It's there on the street, amongst the leadership -- political as well as military -- and among the rank and file of the military. The sheer magnitude of this thing is unbelievable."
PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images
The nomination of Mike McFaul to become ambassador to Russia cleared one major hurdle Thursday as Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) lifted his hold. The administration was working hard Thursday to satsify other GOP senators' concerns as the Senate prepares to adjourn for the year.
If McFaul is not confirmed by the Senate this month, there will be a vacancy atop the U.S. embassy in Moscow as of next week, when Amb. John Beyrle leaves. Kirk had been very public about his reasons for placing a hold on the McFaul nomination, saying that he was seeking written assurances that President Barack Obama's administration will not provide Russia with any currently classified information on the U.S. missile defense system. Several other members of Congress -- and some experts outside Congress, such as former Missile Defense Agency head Lt. Gen. Trey Obering - echoed Kirk's concern.
On Tuesday, Robert Nabors, director of the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote a letter to Kirk on the matter that was obtained by The Cable.
"We will not provide Russia with sensitive information about our missile defense systems that would in any way compromise our national security. For example, hit-to-kill technology and interceptor telemetry will under no circumstances be provided to Russia," wrote Nabors. "However, in the event that the exchange of classified information with Russia on missile defense will increase the president's ability to defend the American people, the president will retain the right to do that."
In a Thursday interview with The Cable, Kirk said that this assurance, combined with new language in the defense authorization bill requiring 60 days notice before any classified missile defense data is shared with Russia, was enough to reassure him that no classified missile defense data will ever be shared. The law also requires the president to certify in writing that Russia won't share the data with any third parties, such as Iran.
Kirk said that the administration can't possibly certify that Russia won't share the information, so there won't be any way for the administration to meet the defense bill's requirement. If the administration does try to notify Congress it plans to share classified missile defense data with Russia, Kirk promised there would be hearings, legislative action, and a full-court press to oppose it.
"They would have a two-month all out fight on their hands," he said.
Kirk also pointed out that the Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitri Rogozin, who has been insulting Kirk on Twitter, is set to travel to Iran next month. "There is no doubt that Iran will share with Russia the technologies found in our RQ-170 drone," Kirk said. "It's extremely troubling that Russia's top official on missile defense is deepening his relationship with Iran."
Kirk praised McFaul and said his record on promoting democracy and human rights will be an asset if and when he takes over the U.S. embassy in Moscow. The hold was never about McFaul personally, Kirk said.
With Kirk's hold gone, that leaves four other GOP senators who had expressed public or private objections to the McFaul nomination: Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN), James Risch (R-ID), Jim DeMint (R-SC), and Richard Burr (R-NC), who has threatened to hold all State Department nominees until State designates the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization..
Corker had placed a hold on McFaul to ensure that the United States fully funds the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) budget, which includes funding for the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, for FY 2012. If Congress passes the omnibus bill with full NNSA funding this week, that should take care of Corker's concerns.
DeMint's objection, which is especially important because he controls the Republican Steering Committee, is over the administration's refusal to share internal documents related to its negotiations with Russia over missile defense. Examples of documents sought by DeMint include the draft of the U.S.-Russia Defense Technology Cooperation Agreement.
DeMint has taken multiple hostages in his fight with the State Department over these documents, including holding the nomination of Mike Hammer to be assistant secretary of State for public affairs.
DeMint and the other GOP senators met with McFaul in the Capitol today for a briefing and McFaul showed the senators the draft DTCA. The hope is that this meeting was enough to satisfy their concerns about U.S. policy toward Russia and information sharing with Congress.
Meanwhile, 36 conservative foreign policy experts wrote to top senators today to plead for the confirmation of Matthew Bryza as ambassador to Azerbaijan. Bryza is currently serving under a recess appointment that expires next month.
His nomination was being held up last year by two Democrats, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who are seen to be representing the concerns of their Armenian constituencies, which are unhappy with the administration's policy opposing a Congressional resolution condemning the 1915 Armenian genocide.
"It is understandable that Armenian Americans and even some Senators will disagree with the U.S. policy concerning whether to call the events of 1915 a genocide. That is an argument to be hashed out with the U.S. Administration on the merits," the experts wrote. "But holding up a qualified career nominee who is already serving in a key position will not change U.S. policy, and does a disservice to U.S. interests in a critical region."
The Obama administration may not be getting a whole lot of love from the pro-Israel community these days, but tonight, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is giving their annual National Service Award to U.N. Representative Susan Rice.
Rice plans to use her acceptance speech at tonight's event in New York to both defend the Obama administration's record on Israel and spell out the increased military and security cooperation that's taken place on Obama's watch. Previous winners include House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD).
Here are some excerpts of Rice's speech, obtained by The Cable:
"America remains deeply and permanently committed to Israel's peace and security. It is a commitment for this president and this Administration. It spans generations. It spans political parties. It is not negotiable. And it never will be," Rice will say.
"From the moment he took office, President Obama's guidance has been clear: to strengthen and deepen that commitment. He has been clear all along that our special relationship with Israel is deeply rooted in our common interests and our common values."
"That's why we've increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. That's why, even in these tough fiscal times, we've increased foreign military financing to record levels. That's why we've also included additional support for the lifesaving Iron Dome anti-rocket system -- which saw action just days ago in defense of innocent Israelis who live near the Gaza frontier."
"That's why we're working jointly to toughen up Israel's security through the Arrow system; and through David's Sling; and through joint military exercises that have never been more robust."
"That's why, if you ask members of the uniformed military of Israel or the United States, if you talk to leaders at the Kirya or the Pentagon, you'll hear the same assessment: the American commitment to Israel's qualitative military edge has never been stronger. That's a fact, plain and simple."
"Of course, the Arab world is undergoing unprecedented political change, and the calls for freedom across the region have brought legitimate security concerns. But let there be no doubt: we are doing all we can to ensure that Israel remains secure even as the region becomes more free."
If President Barack Obama's administration wants to share sensitive data about U.S. missile defense systems with Russia, it now must at least tell Congress in advance, according to the final version of the defense authorization bill.
It was revealed in November that the Obama administration was considering sharing sensitive missile defense information with Russia in a bid to assure the Russians that U.S. missile defense capabilities in Europe were not a threat to their ballistic missile forces. For example, the United States reportedly offered to give Russia the details of the burnout velocity of the SM-3 interceptor missile, which would tell the Russians how far our interceptor missiles could chase their missiles.
The House version of the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill banned any such sharing, but the conference report issued Monday evening softened that restriction. The final version of the legislation, which will land on Obama's desk later this week, requires that the administration give Congress 60 days notice before giving any classified missile defense information to the Russians. The defense bill is considered a "must pass" bill and Obama won't likely veto it over this provision.
The notification must include a detailed description of the information to be shared, an explanation for why such sharing is in the U.S. national security interest, an explanation of what the Russians are giving in return, and an explanation of how the administration can be sure the information won't be shared with third parties, such as Iran.
Of course, the future of U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation is unclear. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev seemed to announce the failure of the talks on Nov. 23, when he also announced a series of retaliatory measures to counter U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe and threatened to withdraw from the New START treaty. But the administration still insists that it plans to continue U.S.-Russian negotiations over how to work together on missile defense.
The concern on Capitol Hill is that the administration will give up valuable information before striking a deal, thereby undermining the effectiveness of U.S. missile defenses before they are even fully deployed.
"It's not at all clear that the Russians have any interest in so-called missile defense cooperation with the United States, but, assuming that the State Department or Defense Department propose to offer classified information to Russia on U.S. missile defenses, for the first time, they will have to tell Congress before they do so," a GOP congressional aide close to the issue told The Cable today. "Congress will have plenty of time to evaluate the proposal and raise objections as necessary."
Meanwhile, the top Russian official dealing with the issue, Russia's NATO Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin, has a new side job: accusing the United States of fomenting unrest in Russia. He gave a speech stoking fears of U.S. aggression against Russia at a rally this week for the ruling United Russia party. The demonstration was called to counter the protests that broke out last week in Moscow and elsewhere around the country after Russia's flawed parliamentary elections.
"There are forces today that consider Russia easy prey," Rogozin said. "They bombed Iraq. They destroyed Libya. They are approaching Syria. They stepped all over the people of Yugoslavia. And they are now thinking about Russia and are waiting for a moment when it is weak."
Rogozin, who got the red carpet treatment from the administration when he visited the United States in July, has also been keeping up his war of words on Twitter with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), whom he in July called a "monster of the Cold War," along with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ).
"My friend Kerk [sic] is relentless. He is now stifling Amb. Michael McFaul," Rogozin tweeted Dec. 4, linking to The Cable's article on Kirk's hold on McFaul's nomination to become ambassador to Russia. "With guys like Kerk US is pushing its way ahead."
The Senate voted late Monday to confirm Norm Eisen as ambassador the Czech Republic, but held up the stalled nomination of Maria Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador.
Both Eisen and Aponte are already serving at the posts under recess appointments that were due to expire at the end of this year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) called for two cloture votes Monday night to get past Republican holds on the nominees. The Senate voted to overrule the hold on Eisen by a 70-16 vote, and he was confirmed by a unanimous voice vote shortly after. The Senate failed to override the hold on Aponte. The vote on proceeding to debate over her confirmation failed 49-37.
Republicans once again put politics above policy by blocking the confirmation
of a dedicated public servant," Reid said in a statement following the Aponte
vote. "In the fifteen months Mari Carmen Aponte has served as our ambassador to
El Salvador, she finalized an important international, anti-crime agreement and
forged a strong partnership between our nations. The Puerto Rican community and
all Americans are right to be proud of Ms. Aponte's accomplishments as a
diplomat representing our nation, as I am."
"I am disappointed Republicans continued a long-running trend of obstructing qualified nominees just to score political points. Unfortunately, defeating President [Barack] Obama is more important to Senate Republicans than confirming qualified nominees to represent our country in Latin America," said Reid.
There was broad GOP opposition to the Aponte confirmation, led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). It is unlikely Democrats will try to confirm her again before adjourning for the holiday break. There is also no sign yet that Senate Democratic leadership will try to bring up the confirmation of Matthew Bryza, whose recess appointment as ambassador to Azerbaijan is about to expire, or the confirmation of Mike McFaul, whose nomination to be ambassador to Russia is being held up by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).
Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable Tuesday morning that he would try to move more nominations this week but he didn't have any specifics.
The Senate will debate and vote on two controversial State Department nominations next week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has announced.
On Dec. 13, the Senate will debate and vote on whether to consider the nominations of Mari Carmen Aponte to be ambassador to El Salvador and Norm Eisen to be ambassador to the Czech Republic. Both are sitting ambassadors who were sent to their posts under recess appointments that expire at the end of the year.
"There will be at least two roll call votes at 5:30 p.m. in relation to the Eisen and Aponte nominations," Reid said on the Senate floor on Thursday night. The votes will be to move on to debating the nominations, not on the nominations themselves. If both votes surpass the 60 senator threshold necessary to achieve cloture, both ambassadors could be formally confirmed by the end of next week.
Reid indicated, but didn't say outright, that there could be more nominations moving next week as well. If the Senate doesn't act this month, the recess appointment of Matthew Bryza to be ambassador to Azerbaijan will expire and he will have to come home.
The nomination of NSC Senior Director Mike McFaul to become ambassador to Russia is also stalled due to a hold by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who wants assurances from the administration it will not give sensitive missile defense data to the Russian Federation.
Reid is personally committed to the Aponte nomination, a Senate Democratic aide told The Cable today.
"Reid's a big fan of hers and he doesn't think her nomination should be a Democratic or Republican issue," the aide said. "He thinks her accomplishments in the past should be proof enough that she's qualified for the position. She's done a lot of work to strengthen U.S. ties with Latin America."
Aponte's nomination to be ambassador to El Salvador was initially held up last year in an effort led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who was demanding more information about Aponte's long-ago romance with Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban-born insurance salesman who allegedly had ties to both the FBI and Castro's intelligence apparatus, according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation at the time.
DeMint shows no signs of backing down, and Aponte was barely approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a 10-9 vote that fell along party lines.
Eisen was sent to Prague through a recess appointment because of objections by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IO). Grassley is still upset over the June 2009 removal of Gerald Walpin as Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a position where he oversaw government programs such as AmeriCorps.
Eisen, the former White House ethics czar, was a key figure in the controversy and defended the White House's actions. He also made the case to Congress that Walpin was unfit for his position, writing in a letter to senators shortly after the sacking that Walpin "was confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the Board to question his capacity to serve." Walpin called those allegations "absolutely amazing."
Grassley, along with Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), has never dropped the issue of Walpin's firing. Grassley's staffers contributed heavily to a joint House-Senate report released last November, which they say alleged not only that Walpin's firing was handled improperly but also that Eisen misled Congress about the matter.
UPDATE: Reid issued the following statement on the Aponte nomination late Friday afternoon:
Mari Carmen Aponte's accomplished record as our nation's current ambassador to El Salvador should be reason enough for the Senate to confirm her on Monday. In 15 months serving our country, Ms. Aponte has already brokered an important transnational, anti-crime agreement and has strengthened our ties with El Salvador. Experts on the region from across the political spectrum support her confirmation. The Puerto Rican community and all Americans are right to be proud of Ms. Aponte's accomplishments as a diplomat representing our nation, as I am.
Unfortunately, a handful of extreme Republicans are threatening to block her nomination just to score political points. I hope Senate Republicans will put politics aside, and do the right thing for our foreign policy by voting to confirm Ms. Aponte.
House Armed Services ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told The Cable today that claims he is trying to "water down" Iran sanctions legislation inside secret conference negotiations is "utter and complete bullshit."
Smith reached out to The Cable today to refute claims made by a senior GOP aide in our story yesterday that he and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) were pushing for changes to the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions amendment that would weaken its penalties on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and any foreign banks that do business with it. The administration has been pushing for changes to the amendment that would weaken the sanctions, and give the administration more flexibility in implementing them.
The Kirk-Menendez amendment was added to the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill last week by a 100-0 vote in the Senate. House and Senate conferees are meeting behind closed doors this week to hash out a compromise version of the bill, which includes negotiations on the Kirk-Menendez language. Whatever emerges from the secret conference will be voted on by both chambers next week and sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.
A senior GOP aide told The Cable on Thursday that Smith and Levin were advocating inside the secret conference for the changes the administration wants. Smith said flatly today he may be seeking changes in the amendment, but is not trying to "weaken" the sanctions.
"It is not accurate to say we are trying to water it down," Smith said, declining to get into specifics about what changes he is seeking.
"Different people have different views on what is stronger than something than something else, but this notion that Menendez and Kirk got it absolutely 100 percent perfectly right, and that there's no point discussing anything else that can be done to it, doesn't make any sense to me," Smith said.
"It's not a matter of weaker or stronger, it's a matter of making sure we get the language right, in order to put us in a position to put the maximum amount of pressure on Iran. That's what we're trying to do."
The secret nature of the negotiations has contributed to the confusion of what's going on with the Iran sanctions language. Adding to the problem is that, once the conferees reach a final decision, it will be virtually impossible to go back and alter the language because that would open up the entire defense bill again and there's no time to do that if Congress wants to pass the bill this year.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who are both upset at the administration over its handling of the sanctions negotiations, could have kept total control over the amendment by not adding it to the defense bill in the first place, which is managed by the Armed Services Committee and therefore somewhat out of their control. But they needed to attach the amendment to a piece of "must pass" legislation in order to see their ideas sent to Obama quickly and without a real possibility of a veto.
Smith was careful in our interview to explain that while the secret process is managed by him, Levin, House Armed Services chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), and Senate Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), the negotiations would take the views of other lawmakers into consideration as well.
"We're certainly not going to just leave it up to the four of us to figure out how to work this," Smith said. "But we are trying to make sure it gets in the bill, gets signed, and gets into force as soon as we can do it."
House Foreign Affairs ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA), who announced yesterday that he would definitely not be the one carrying the administration's water on the issue, is one of the other key voices within the conference.
"I will not, and Congress should not, give into entreaties from the administration or elsewhere ... to dilute our approach to sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran's petroleum transactions," Berman said to applause at a conference on Thursday sponsored by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative policy and research organization. "The Kirk-Menendez amendment is a good amendment."
Menendez also spokes at the FDD conference and doubled down on his push for the stronger measures.
"In the case of Iran I've argued that we have no choice but to impose the most robust sanctions possible because we will NEVER permit Iran to have a nuclear weapon and the timeline for acting is now - NOT when we are facing no other choice than military action," Menendez said.
"Last week, the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to support this option... The time to act is now."
Levin's office declined to comment on the secret negotiations.
House and Senate leaders are meeting this week behind closed doors to work out language for new sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), and the administration is pressing key Democrats hard to adopt their position, which aims to weaken the sanctions measures.
The debate is taking place as part of the negotiations over the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill, which passed both the House and the Senate and is in conference right now. The legislation will probably emerge from conference next week and pass both chambers, at which point President Barack Obama will be under heavy pressure to sign the "must pass" defense bill, with whatever Iran sanctions language the conferees agree on.
The current sanctions language at the center of the closed door debate is the amendment by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), which passed the Senate by a rare 100-0 vote over the very public objections of top Obama administration officials. The amendment would direct the Obama administration to take punitive measures against foreign banks that do business with the CBI, but gives the administration more leeway to implement the sanctions than Kirk's original language.
The administration urged Kirk and Menendez to come up with a compromise amendment but then came out against that very compromise last week, angering and alienating Menendez, who needs to be tough on the issue ahead of his re-election bid next year. The Cable has obtained the administration's private communications to the conferees spelling out the changes they want to the Kirk-Menendez amendment; they can be found here and here.
Basically, the administration wants to delay the implementation of sanctions not related to oil purchases from 60 to 180 days, and wants to water down the severity of sanctions measures if and when they are put into effect.
Initially, the administration turned to House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) to help them with the changes. Berman, who is inside the closed conference, initially indicated that he wanted to work with the administration to change the Kirk-Menendez amendment.
But Berman also has a tough reelection fight coming up against Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), who he must face after their districts were combined, and he can't afford to seem weak on Iran. Today, Berman announced that he does not want to want to water down the Kirk-Menendez language at all. In fact, he said he wants to strengthen it.
"Every administration wants total discretion on foreign policy, but that is an impulse that Congress must always resist," Berman said at a conference on Thursday sponsored by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a conservative policy and research organization. Berman spoke just after a panel on Syria, moderated by your humble Cable guy.
"I will not, and Congress should not, give into entreaties from the administration or elsewhere ... to dilute our approach to sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran's petroleum transactions," Berman said to applause. "The Kirk-Menendez amendment is a good amendment."
Berman said the only change he wants to the Kirk-Menendez amendment is to shorten the administration's window for implementing sanctions on those who do oil business with the CBI from 180 days, as the Kirk-Menendez bill specifies, to 120 days.
Sherman, in a Thursday interview with The Cable, accused Berman of flip-flopping on the issue and said the Kirk-Menendez language should be sent to Obama's desk exactly as it is.
"Berman was helping the administration and now he's made a 180 degree change, which is good," Sherman said.
"We need to protect the Menendez-Kirk language," he said, making sure to name the Democrat first. "The White House doesn't want to do it. And the White House will be trying to stop the Menendez-Kirk amendment from being in legislation that the president has to sign."
Having lost Berman, the administration then turned to other senior Democrats to carry its water inside the conference. We're told by a senior GOP congressional aide close to the conference negotiations that House Armed Services ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) are now arguing inside the conference for changes to the Kirk-Menendez amendment to satisfy the administration's concerns.
"Right now the Republicans want to adopt the
Menendez/Kirk amendment while the Democrats, specifically Congressman Smith and
Senator Levin, are working to incorporate the Obama administration'
The administration has argued publicly that the Kirk-Menendez amendment could alienate foreign countries, make it more difficult to form an international coalition to pressure Iran, and raise oil prices, which could actually help the Iranian economy. They have argued in private meetings with lawmakers that the effort could hurt the U.S. economy.
Supporters of the Kirk-Menendez amendment point to an extensive report on CBI sanctions compiled in the midst of the negotiations by the FDD.
"The (once) confidential report was provided to the administration and select members of Congress during the discussions on the Menendez-Kirk Central Bank amendment," FDD's Mark Dubowitz told The Cable. "The report concluded that, even if the Saudis did not release additional oil supplies, it was still possible to reduce Iran's oil revenues without spooking oil markets and driving up the price of oil."
Sherman's view on that tension is shared by most lawmakers. "You can't stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon without breaking some eggs," he said.
The State Department formally rolled out a new plan today for how it will tackle economic, energy, and environmental issues -- by combining them all into one bureaucratic structure.
Undersecretary Bob Hormats is the leader of the newly expanded "E" team in Foggy Bottom, making him the undersecretary for economic growth, energy, and the environment. Before today, Hormats was the undersecretary for economic, energy and agricultural affairs. The change moves several offices under Hormats' umbrella, and also places him in charge of two new offices that never existed before.
Hormats is now in charge of three bureaus led by assistant secretaries and their teams: the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), led by Assistant Secretary Kerri-Ann Jones, the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs (EB), led by Assistant Secretary Jose Fernandez, and the brand new Bureau of Energy Resources (ENR), led by State's Coordinator for International Energy Carlos Pascual, pending the confirmation of an assistant secretary.
The new "E" family will also, for the first time, include the Office of the Science and Technology Advisor, led by E. William Colglazier, and a new Office of the Chief Economist, which will be led by someone who hasn't been hired yet - interviews are ongoing.
Hormats could have as many as 150 to 200 new people under his leadership, but the changes are basically cost neutral. The idea is to combine these three bureaus into a cohesive team, which can take advantage of the increasing overlap between energy policy, environmental policy, and the economy.
"If this was only moving the bureaucratic boxes around it wouldn't be worth the effort," Hormats told The Cable in an interview. "This really responds to Secretary Clinton's challenge to break down silos and to create greater efficiencies within the State Department and focus attention in developing economic statecraft."
The changes in the State Department's bureaucracy were spelled out in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which was released last year, but also fits perfectly into Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's new favorite initiative, "Economic Statecraft," as laid out in her speech in October.
"America's economic strength and our global leadership are a package deal," Clinton said. "A strong economy has been a quiet pillar of American power in the world. It gives us the leverage we need to exert influence and advance our interests. It gives other countries confidence in our leadership and a greater stake in partnering with us."
Hormats said the State Department was currently evaluating several ways in which the new offices could work together. For example, the United States could use economic strategies to promote access for U.S. energy technology companies in Africa, he said. The environmental experts could also chip in to make sure development in the African energy sector is ecologically sound.
Another initiative State is thinking about, Hormats said, is an effort to strengthen science and technology cooperation with the European Union in areas such as nanotechnology, smart grids, and electric cars. The idea is to play a role in setting industry-wide standards for new green technologies, helping U.S. businesses establish an international foothold in these emerging industries.
The conventional wisdom is that environmental and business objectives are at odds with each other, but Hormats is aiming to disprove that. He made the case that environmentally conscious companies are more energy efficient, and therefore more economically successful. President Barack Obama's Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas is an existing example of this type of thinking, and a project that will be managed in his shop.
Hormats has also been meeting over several months with environmental groups to assure them that their concerns will not be made subservient to the overwhelming drive to seek economic gains and greater energy independence.
"The last thing we want to do is make the environmental bureau a subsidiary of the economic or energy bureaus," Hormats said. "The goal is to find synergies among co-equals. That's the key."
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari left Pakistan suddenly on Tuesday, complaining of heart pains, and is now in Dubai. His planned testimony before a joint session of Pakistan's parliament on the Memogate scandal is now postponed indefinitely.
On Dec. 4, Zardari announced that he would address Pakistan's parliament about the Memogate issue, in which his former ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani stands accused of orchestrating a scheme to take power away from Pakistan's senior military and intelligence leadership and asking for U.S. help in preventing a military coup. Haqqani has denied that he wrote the memo at the heart of the scheme, which also asked for U.S. support for the Zardari government and promised to realign Pakistani foreign policy to match U.S. interests.
The memo was passed from Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz to former National Security Advisor Jim Jones, to then Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen on May 10, only nine days after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad.
Ijaz has repeatedly accused Haqqani of being behind the memo, and Ijaz claims that Haqqani was working with Zardari's implicit support.
Early on Tuesday morning, Zardari's spokesman revealed that the president had traveled to Dubai to see his children and undergo medical tests linked to a previously diagnosed "cardiovascular condition."
A former U.S. government official told The Cable today that when President Barack Obama spoke with Zardari over the weekend regarding NATO's killing of the 24 Pakistani soldiers, Zardari was "incoherent." The Pakistani president had been feeling increased pressure over the Memogate scandal. "The noose was getting tighter -- it was only a matter of time," the former official said, expressing the growing expectation inside the U.S. government that Zardari may be on the way out.
The former U.S. official said that parts of the U.S. government were informed that Zardari had a "minor heart attack" on Monday night and flew to Dubai via air ambulance today. He may have angioplasty on Wednesday and may also resign on account of "ill health."
"If true, this is the ‘in-house change option' that has been talked about," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, in a Tuesday interview with The Cable. Nawaz said that under this scenario, Zardari would step aside and be replaced by his own party, preserving the veneer of civilian rule but ultimately acceding to the military's wishes to get rid of Zardari.
In Islamabad, some papers have reported that before Zardari left Pakistan, the Pakistani Army insisted that Zardari be examined by their own physicians, and that the Army doctors determined that Zardari was fine and did not need to leave the country for medical reasons. Zardari's spokesman has denied that he met with the Army doctors.
One Pakistani source told The Cable that Zardari was informed on Monday that none of the opposition party members nor any of the service chiefs would attend his remarks to the parliament as a protest against his continued tenure. This source also said that over a dozen of Zardari's ambassadors in foreign countries were in the process of being recalled in what might be a precursor to Zardari stepping down as president, taking many of his cronies with him.
Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported that before leaving, Zardari met separately with Gilani, Chairman of the Senate Farooq H Naik, and Interior Minister Rehman Malik.
This past weekend, the Memogate scandal worsened for Zardari when Ijaz alleged in a Newsweek opinion piece that Zardari and Haqqani had prior knowledge of the U.S. raid to kill bin Laden, and may have given permission for the United States to violate Pakistan's airspace to conduct the raid.
On May 2, the day after bin Laden was killed, Wajid Hasan, Pakistan's high commissioner to the United Kingdom, said in an interview with CNN that Pakistan, "did know that this was going to happen because we have been keeping -- we were monitoring him and America was monitoring him. But Americans got to where he was first."
In a statement given to the Associated Press of Pakistan Monday, White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said that information on the actual operation to kill bin Laden was not given to anyone in Pakistan.
"As we've said repeatedly, given the sensitivity of the operation, to protect our operators we did not inform the Pakistani government, or any other government, in advance," she said.
Zardari lived in self-imposed exile in Dubai from 2004 through 2007 after being released from prison, where he had been held for eight years on corruption charges. His three children live there, but his 23-year son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), is in Pakistan now.
UPDATE: A Pakistani source close to Zardari e-mailed into The Cable to say that Zardari is simply ill and is not stepping down. Rumors of Zardari stepping down might be part of a behind the scenes power play but Zardari confidante Senate Chairman Farooq Naek will be acting president while Zardari is out of the country and Gilani remains loyal to Zardari, flanked by Zardari's son Bilawal. "The rumors of a silent coup are sometimes a way of trying to effect a silent coup. It won't happen," the source said.
President Barack Obama's administration is working behind the scenes to water down congressional language that would impose crippling sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI).
The Obama administration sent to Congress this week a list of requested changes to the sanctions language found in the Senate's version of the defense authorization bill, which was passed last week. Those sanctions, which would punish any bank that does business with the CBI, were part of an amendment authored by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) that passed the Senate over the administration's objections by a vote of 100 to 0.
The House and the Senate are negotiating over the defense authorization bill this week behind closed doors, so the administration has one more chance to try to change the sanctions language before the bill lands on Obama's desk. If the Kirk-Menendez language is sent to the president without any alterations, he will be forced to either accept it or veto the entire defense authorization bill. There's no indication yet which way he would go.
The administration's laundry list of requested changes to the bill was sent to leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. The administration wants to delay the implementation of sanctions not related to oil purchases from 60 to 180 days, and wants to water down the severity of sanctions measures if and when they are put into effect.
Kirk and Menendez sent a letter on Monday night to House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-WA), which was obtained by The Cable, urging them to hold the line and keep the Senate language as-is.
"The Menendez/Kirk amendment is tough, responsible and, most importantly, bipartisan. It provides the Administration another key tool to curb Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons while keeping oil markets stable and encouraging other nations to reduce Iranian oil purchases. With the support of every single United States Senator, it needs no alterations," they wrote.
"We understand the administration has submitted to your Committee a list of proposed changes to the Menendez/Kirk amendment -- both ‘technical fixes' and ‘alterations.' We would note that proposals to delay sanctions implementation and water down the amendment's penalties are not ‘technical' in nature and should be rejected."
Menendez had been working with the administration on how to sanction the CBI, but publicly announced on Dec. 1 that he felt burned by the administration's public opposition to his amendment. "This certainly undermines your relationship with me for the future," Menendez told administration officials at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
So the administration must now look toward Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for help in altering the Kirk-Menendez amendment. Berman's committee has shared jurisdiction on the bill, and Berman has been active in sponsoring legislation to sanction Iran and the CBI.
In a statement e-mailed to The Cable, Berman indicated that the Kirk-Menendez language might not be the final say in how Congress moves to sanction Iran.
"As the original author of the House amendment to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, I am pleased that the Senate has taken action on this urgent issue. In the near future, the House will pass the Iran Threat Reduction Act, which includes my amendment," Berman said. "Meanwhile, I will be working with my colleagues in the House, the Senate, and the Administration in an effort to ensure that the final language of the Kirk-Menendez amendment is as tough and sensible as possible and provides a time-frame that corresponds to the rapid progress Iran is making toward developing nuclear weapons."
One GOP congressional aide told The Cable that if Berman seems to be working to weaken the Senate language, Republicans are ready to use that as fodder against him in his upcoming primary fight against Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA). The two lawmakers' districts were combined due to redistricting, and they now have to run against each other next year.
"I can't imagine why Howard Berman would want to put his seat at risk by helping the Obama administration weaken Iran sanctions," the GOP aide said. "All he needs to say is 'The House recedes' and the Menendez/Kirk amendment becomes law. Brad Sherman must be licking his chops."
President Barack Obama's administration has sided with Bahrain's ruling regime over its domestic protest movement more clearly than in any other country affected by the Arab Spring. But that position is unwise and unsustainable, according to one of Bahrain's leading human rights activists, who visited Washington last week.
Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, came to Washington to receive the Woodrow Wilson Center's 2011 Ion Ratiu Democracy Award for his work documenting human rights abuses conducted by the Bahraini ruling family's security forces since protesters took to the streets in the capital of Manama in February. He was not invited to the State Department for any meetings whatsoever. He did visit the National Security Council, and met with senior director for democracy Gayle Smith, but wasn't given time by any official who works directly on Bahrain.
Rajab sat down on Dec. 4 for an exclusive interview with The Cable. His main message was that the Obama administration's defense of the Bahraini government, including a new push to sell it more weapons, is sowing seeds of distrust and resentment of the United States among the Bahraini people. He urged the Obama administration to use its influence in Bahrain to press the regime for improvements on human rights.
Rajab said that the United States was repeating the mistakes of the past by siding with a minority regime that has brutalized its Shiite majority population. Here are some excerpts:
JR: What is your main message to the Washington foreign policy community?
NR: What I have realized is that there's a difference between the way the American government and the American people look at the Arab uprisings or the Arab revolution. I have received great support from American civil society, human rights groups, etc., in support of the Bahraini revolution. But that is totally different than the position of the United States government, which has disappointed many people in the Gulf region. And they have seen how the U.S. has acted differently and has different responses for different countries. There is full support for revolutions in countries where [the U.S. government] has a problem with their leadership, but when it comes to allied dictators in the Gulf countries, they have a much softer position and that was very upsetting to many people in Bahrain and the Gulf region. This will not serve your long strategic interest, to strengthen and continue your relations with dictators and repressive regimes.... You should have taken a lesson from Tunisia and Egypt, but now you are repeating the same thing by ignoring all those people struggling for democracy and human rights.... Those dictators will not be there forever. Relationships should be maintained with people, not families.
JR: The Obama administration says they are encouraging both sides to work together toward reform. Do you not see that as helpful?
NR: The U.S. is more influential in Bahrain than the United Nations. If they are serious about something, they could do it. They have lots of means to pressure the Bahraini government but so far they are soft. They act as if both sides are equal. You have people fighting for democracy and human rights and struggling for social justice. Then you have a repressive government with an army. You can't speak as if they can be treated in an equal manner. It's the government that is killing people. It's the government that is committing the crimes. The pressure should be put on the government. All of the statements by [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and [President] Barack Obama have no impact on the ground because the government was not really being forced to listen to it.... This government has to be told that their relationship with the United States is not a green light to commit crimes, because that's how it is understood by the government. And no one in the United States has told them, no, it's not like that.
JR: What do you say to those who argue that revolution in Bahrain risks instability and the rise of anti-Americanism?
NR: This is the image of the United States in our country: that this superpower supports dictators and doesn't want democracy in our region, because they [are] told that democracy would not serve their interests. They were misled by governments in our region that democracy will bring extremists to power who will fight against U.S. interests. Democracy is not against anybody's interests. Democracy is about living together, sharing together, tolerance, working together, and that's what we are fighting for.
JR: What's the significance of the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was released last week?
NR: It was not perfect, it was not an independent group, it was a group made by the government. But a big part of the report is good and talks about the abuses we have been talking about... It needs to be implemented and I don't see so far any positive reaction from the government. They appointed a commission to implement the report, a big part of which is made up of people who were part of the problem. Here is where the United States needs to speak, to tell them not to waste this opportunity to create real reform.
JR: What does the U.S. sale of $53 million worth of new weapons say to you and your fellow activists?
NR: This is the hypocrisy, this is the double standard. You can't ask Russia to stop selling arms to Syria at the same time you are selling arms to Bahrain while they are killing their own people. How do you convince the Bahraini people this is for their own benefit? What message are you trying to send to the Bahraini people when you try to sell arms? Even now, there are people in the State Department who want to push this sale. Rather than this, there should be more sanctions on the Bahraini government.
JR: The Bahraini foreign minister told us in an interview that the police, not the military, have been dealing with the protests. Is it true?
NR: The military has taken part in suppressing the protests. They have killed people, they have tortured people, they have arrested people, they have detained people. They have established checkpoints and humiliated people at checkpoints, raided houses, robbed houses, demolished mosques. They have taken part in every crime committed in the past months.
JR: You are not seeking total regime change, so what is the end state you want to see in Bahrain?
NR: When the people of Bahrain came out on Feb. 14, they didn't want to overthrow the government, they wanted to reform the government. They want elected government. We've had a corrupt prime minister for over 40 years. We want to separate the government from the royal family. We want a parliament that has power... We want to have an end to the corruption, we want human rights violations to stop, we want sectarian discrimination to be stopped. But the resistance of the government has created a movement to overthrow the government. And if they will continue to resist reforms, that movement to overthrow the government will increase.
JR: What has the government done to you to try to silence you?
NR: They have attacked my house on a weekly basis, you can see it on YouTube. They attacked me, 25 masked men kidnapped me from my home last March. They blindfolded me, handcuffed me, beat me, then took me back home. This has happened a few times. My house is targeted, my mother's house is targeted, all because of my work. But I am better off than the others, because I am free and not dead, because there are people who have been killed and who are behind bars now.
A team of conservative policymakers and thinkers believes that there's a real chance that Western efforts to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon will fail, in which case the United States would have to lead an international effort to contain Iran and deter the Islamic Republic from using its nuclear weapons capability.
Experts at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative Washington think tank, have spent the last six months thinking about how the United States should respond to a nuclear-armed Iran. They are getting ready to release an extensive report tomorrow detailing a comprehensive strategy for dealing with that scenario, entitled, "Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran."
"The report is very much an acknowledgement of the very real possibility of failure of the strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and any responsible party should recognize that failure is an option. There's been a huge disservice done by all who have spent their lives in denial of that possibility," AEI Vice President Danielle Pletka told The Cable in a Monday interview. "Whenever you devise a strategy for what happens before a country gets a nuclear weapon, you should have a strategy for what happens after they get one as well."
Pletka will unveil the report on Tuesday morning at an event with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), and fellow AEI experts Tom Donnelly, Maseh Zarif, and Fred Kagan. The project brought together Iran experts of all stripes to brainstorm what would be needed to create the maximum level of confidence that, if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon, it would not decide to use it.
"While there can never be certain deterrence, Cold War presidents often had confidence that the United States had sufficient military power to support a policy of containment through a strategy of deterrence; for most of the period they felt that deterrence was assured," the report states. "It is worth repeating Dean Acheson's basic formulation: ‘American power would be employed in stopping [Soviet aggression and expansion], and if necessary, would inflict on the Soviet Union injury which the Moscow regime would not wish to suffer.' Assured deterrence began with assured destruction of the Soviet regime."
Pletka said that while the geopolitical environment is now different, the basic goal of U.S. policy is the same -- to create a situation whereby Iranian leaders would credibly believe that any nuclear attack would mean the end of their regime. But Pletka doubts whether this administration has the stomach for such a stance.
"Take out Soviet and Moscow from Acheson's quote, and sub in Iran and Tehran. Are we willing to inflict on Iran injury which the Tehran regime would not wish to suffer? I doubt it," Pletka warned. "There's no question that a country can be deterred from using a nuclear weapon, the only question is if there is the will to put those tools in place."
The report works under the assumption that Iran is working to build a nuclear weapon now and could complete one before the 2012 U.S. presidential election, after which it would continue to build nuclear weapons at a rapid pace. The report also assumes that the Obama administration is unwilling to go to war with Iran before November 2012 over the issue, and that even a limited strike by Israel would not achieve a full destruction of Iran's nuclear capabilities.
"Strategically, Iran's leaders would be foolish to wait until after November 2012 to acquire the capability to permanently deter an American attack on their nuclear program," the report states. "Sound American strategy thus requires assuming that Iran will have a weaponized nuclear capability when the next president takes office in January 2013. The Iranians may not test a device before then, depending, perhaps, on the rhetoric of the current president and his possible successor, but we must assume that they will have at least one."
"Make no mistake -- it would be vastly preferable for the United States and the world to find a way to prevent Iran from crossing that threshold, and we wholeheartedly endorse ongoing efforts that might do so," the authors write. "But some of the effort now focused on how to tighten the sanctions screws must shift to the problem of how to deal with the consequences when sanctions fail."
For Donnelly, part of the report's value is that it highlights the high costs of a deterrence and containment strategy compared to the costs of taking stronger actions now to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
"Deterrence and containment are the default mode for the people who are not up for going to war, but we wanted to point out that this was not a cheap or easy alternative, which is the way a lot of people make it sound," Donnelly told The Cable in an interview.
At Tuesday's event, Kirk will make the argument that the deterrence and containment strategy are too costly and too uncertain to depend on. His speech will be entitled, "If Iran gets the bomb..."
"Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran is on the march to nuclear weapons. And if this brutal, terrorist-sponsoring regime achieves its goal -- if Iran gets the bomb -- we, the United States of America and freedom-loving nations around the world, will have failed in what could be our generation's greatest test," Kirk will say, according to excerpts of his speech provided to The Cable.
"Iran remains the leading sponsor of international terrorism -- a proliferator of missiles and nuclear materials -- a regional aggressor -- and an abuser of human rights. We cannot afford to risk the security of future generations on a policy of containment."
The Obama administration keeps on naming new ambassadors, but several key State Department nominees remain stalled in the Senate.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama announced his intention to nominate Joseph Macmanus to be U.S. envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), William Todd to be ambassador to Cambodia, Jonathan Farrar to be ambassador to Panama, and Phyllis Powers to be ambassador to Nicaragua.
Macmanus, who is now principal deputy assistant secretary of state (PDAS) for legislative affairs, replaces Glyn Davies, the new special coordinator for North Korea policy. Previously, Macmanus has served as the executive assistant to Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice.
Todd, who spent the last year in the U.S. embassy in Kabul coordinating development and economic affairs, was previously the U.S. ambassador to Brunei. Joe Donovan, the recently departed PDAS for East Asian and Pacific affairs, had been rumored to be in line for the Cambodia post -- a consolation prize after he was considered as U.S. ambassador to Seoul but then was not selected. Inside South Korea, there was some criticism of Donovan's relatively low profile compared to other U.S. ambassadors in East Asia.
The Obama administration eventually picked Sung Kim as the U.S. envoy to Seoul and he's been welcomed warmly by the South Koreans as he's the first Korean-American to hold the post. Donovan is now working at the National Defense University. We're told that Tokyo Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Jim Zumwalt is expected to return to Washington as the new deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, although nothing has been formally announced.
Meanwhile, several State Department nominations remained stalled in the Senate due to various objections by GOP senators. The Cable has confirmed that Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) placed a hold Thursday on the nomination of National Security Council Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul, who has been nominated as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia. Kirk and McFaul met on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Apparently, the meeting did not go well.
Kirk told the Associated Press on Thursday that "he wants written assurances that the United States will not provide Russia with any currently classified information on the missile defense system."
Other State Department nominations currently facing GOP Senate opposition include the nominations of Norm Eisen to be ambassador to the Czech Republic, Mari Carmen Aponte to be ambassador to El Salvador, and Roberta Jacobson to become assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. Eisen and Aponte are currently serving in their posts under recess appointment that expire at the end of this month.
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.