The main group representing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Washington is calling for the United States and the international community to forcibly establish a partial no-fly zone in Syria for the first time since the 18-month revolution began.
The Syrian regime's increased use of air power to attack Syrian cities, combined with the increased control over land by the Syrian rebels, makes the idea viable, said Louay Sakka, co-founder of the Syrian Support Group (SSG), in an interview with The Cable.
The SSG is the main link between the U.S. government and the FSA and has emerged in recent months as the key organization in Washington dealing directly with the internal Syrian political and military leadership.
"This is right now the time for a no-fly zone to take place. We need to stop the fixed-wing and helicopters from attacking," Sakka said. "The regime cannot hold ground without air power or heavy artillery. Things have changed in many ways. The fighter jets cannot attack only the FSA; they have random targeting and that means a lot casualties: children, women, older people, people who have nothing to do with the fight, and they are dying in huge numbers."
The SSG's call for a no fly zone comes just as reports are surfacing that the Syrian military closed off the Damascus suburb of Daraya last week and began a brutal assault resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths. Some 30,000 Syrians fled to neighboring countries last week alone, pushing the external refugee total over the 200,000 mark, according to U.N. figures.
But an administration official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Cable that the White House is still resisting any move that would see U.S. military assets used inside Syria, such as through a no-fly zone, but opponents of intervention are slowly losing ground.
"It's a Donilon call at the end of the day," the official said, referring to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who is leading a complicated interagency policy process on the Syria crisis. "There's not enthusiasm but there are differences of opinion about a no-fly zone," the official said. "There is no rush to do it."
The Assad regime's lack of use of fixed-wing aircraft was cited internally as a reason not to declare at no-fly zone and that reason no longer applies, the official argued. Opponents of a no-fly zone have also argued that the Syrian internal opposition had not formally requested it. That reason is also no longer operative.
"There's a question of whether or not our government is willing to reject the request. Or they could take it into consideration for a long time," the official said. "There's a recognition that some decision has to be made. We are quickly reaching a turning point due to the escalation."
The official confirmed that rebels are taking a serious toll on the regime's armor in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, pushing the regime to rely more heavily on its air superiority and massive artillery bombardments.
"These local rebel groups are gaining in organization and territory but they are there's still a significant gap in their capacity to fight back against the 500-pound bombs being dropped by regime aircraft," the official said, but warned, "No other countries are going to go all in until they see what the Americans are going to do."
The French government is pushing the Obama administration toward a decision, as in Libya a year ago. French President François Hollande said Monday that France would recognize a rebel government if the Syrian opposition declared one, and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian signaled support for a no-fly zone last week.
Sakka said that based on his interactions with Obama administration officials, he believes that U.S. involvement in a no-fly zone is being seriously considered now.
"If we brought it up a few weeks ago [to the administration], their reaction was ‘Don't even think about it.' And now the reaction is ‘We're thinking about it,'" he said. "That's a good step forward. Now we're looking for them to move it from a plan to implementation."
Sakka acknowledges that a no-fly zone would include using foreign military assets to attack Syrian air defenses and perhaps even engage Syrian aircraft directly. Turkey and other countries are ready to move toward that if the United States would agree to the idea, and safe zones already established in Turkey could be expanded to include a 10-kilometer buffer zone along the border inside Syria, he said.
"We need an area inside Syrian soil that we know cannot be attacked by the regime. And that's what we think is doable... This is the minimum required at this stage," Sakka said. "It will be a big mistake down the road not to do this now before the amount of casualties is so big and the amount of destabilization happens that it spreads further outside Syria."
The SSG is working closely with the State Department, especially the office of Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, to increase the U.S. understanding of the internal Syrian opposition. The SSG is also helping various local rebel councils organize into a more coherent chain of command that can communicate effectively both among themselves as well as with outsiders, potentially tackling another key obstacle the United States says stands in the way of more robust and direct American support to the FSA.
The SSG's effort to become the conduit between the U.S. government and the FSA seems to be working. Earlier this summer, the State Department and Treasury Department changed policy to allow the SSG to send cash from the United States to the FSA -- cash the FSA can use for weapons despite the administration's refusal to directly arm the rebels.
One American politician urging intervention is Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who was in Paris last week and met with Le Drian, as well as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, National Security Adviser Paul Jean-Ortiz, Foreign Ministry Political Director Jacques Audibert, Hollande's military advisor, Gen. Benoit Puga, Eric Chevallier, the French ambassador to Syria, and members of the Syrian opposition based in Paris.
"I'm very encouraged by the discussions I had with the French leadership about Syria," Lieberman told The Cable from Paris. "As Assad has sharply escalated his use of attack helicopters and fighter aircraft against the Syrian people in recent weeks, there is an increasingly clear and compelling case for a limited no-fly zone. While this would require no U.S. combat forces on the ground, it could have a strategically significant impact by reinforcing the emerging rebel safe zones in northern Syria and allowing the opposition the space they need to organize politically and establish a transitional government on Syrian soil."
The Russian people and international observers may not see last Sunday's presidential election in Russia as legitimate, but President Barack Obama has now officially endorsed the return of Russian past and future President Vladimir Putin.
"President Obama called Russian President-elect and Prime Minister Putin to congratulate him on his recent victory in the Russian Presidential election," the White House said in a late Friday afternoon statement (read: news dump) about the Friday morning phone call between the two leaders.
"President Obama highlighted achievements in U.S.-Russia relations over the past three years with President Medvedev, including cooperation on Afghanistan, the conclusion and ratification of the START agreement, Russia's recent invitation to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and cooperation on Iran," the statement read. "President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed that the successful reset in relations should be built upon during the coming years."
Obama told Putin he looked forward to Putin's May visit to Camp David for the G-8 summit and the two talked about how they could benefit economically from Russia's joining the WTO, the statement explained.
That could be a reference to administration efforts to get Congress to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that prevents the U.S. from giving Russia permanent normal trade status. Some in Congress are resisting that because of Russia's deteriorating record on democracy, rule of law, and human rights.
At the end of the statement, the White House mentioned the crisis in Syria, in which the Russian government is arming the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue discussions on areas where the United States and Russia have differed, including Syria and missile defense," the statement read. "President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue their efforts to find common ground and remove obstacles to better relations."
The State Department, in their May 5 statement on the election, noted the concerns of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe about the election, including that it wasn't a level playing field to begin with, that government resources were used partisan purposes, and that there were procedural irregularities on the day of the election.
"We urge Russian authorities to build on these steps to ensure that the procedures for future elections will be more transparent," the State Department said. The White House statement made no mention of the problems with the election.
After Russia's Dec. 2011 parlaimentary elections, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called them "neither free nor fair." When Russian protesters took to the streets to protest those elections and Putin's return to the presidency, Putin publicly accused Clinton of inciting the protests.
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
As Syrian tanks consolidated their hold on the restive city of Homs, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday that the United States should not provide any direct assistance to the Syrian people at this time.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) spoke Thursday morning in a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, mostly about the defense budget and military acquisitions programs. The Cable asked Smith whether or not the United States has any responsibility to protect civilians in Syria and whether he would support any direct assistance there, be it humanitarian, medical, communications, intelligence, or even military support to the people under attack by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Smith said no to both questions. On the issue of "responsibility to protect," the humanitarian doctrine often cited as a rational for foreign intervention, Smith said it's not a workable policy.
"There are a whole lot of people around the world suffering in a variety of different ways and it would be wrong to say that under no circumstances do we bear any responsibility for that ... But there are more people suffering and more problems in the world than we could possibly solve or even come close to attending to," he said. "Do we say if there is suffering anywhere we as the United States of America have a responsibility to try and fix it? ‘No,' is the answer to that question, because it's a challenge we can't possibly meet."
Regarding Syria specifically, Smith said there are just no good options, and definitely none that would make a difference without costing the United States too much.
"If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try," Smith said. "Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
Syria is different than Libya because the opposition is spread throughout the country, and doesn't hold any territory, according to Smith. Assisting Syrians would therefore be logistically problematic, he said.
"In Syria, it's a mess ... it would be very difficult to act in the first place in a way that would make a difference," he said.
Smith also cited the lack of an international mandate for direct assistance in Syria.
"If that broad international support came together, you know, if there was a clearer military mission that could be achievable, I think it's something that if I were the president I would be looking at every day," said Smith. "Is the situation changing or evolving in a way that puts us in a position to help? I don't think it's there right now."
Smith's comments closely track those of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who told The Cable in an interview Wednesday that NATO has no intention of intervening in Syria or providing direct aid to the opposition in any way.
"The guiding question should be: Would it bring a sustainable solution to the problem if we decided to intervene, if we had the legal basis, if we had support from the region?" Rasmussen said, arguing that any intervention mission simply wouldn't have a high likelihood of success.
The Obama administration has clearly stated several times it does not favor any military intervention in Syria or providing arms to the Syrian rebels, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the United States is interested in providing humanitarian assistance if the Assad regime consents.
The Cable also asked Smith what the U.S. reaction should be if Israel conducts a unilateral military strike on Iran's nuclear program.
"We should have a policy, we should not talk about it publicly, because that would not help the overall situation," Smith said. "To state a policy that says, ‘If Israel attacks...' will only fuel the fire and make people think ‘Well, [the U.S.] must know that they're going to attack."
Office of Rep. Adam Smith
The State Department rolled out its fiscal 2013 budget request today, which contains several items that are sure to meet resistance when lawmakers roll up their sleeves and dig into the budget this spring and summer.
International programs don't have strong constituencies on Capitol Hill to begin with, and Congress has its own ideas for how to spend foreign aid.
The State Department knows all of this, of course, and has framed its fiscal 2013 budget request as a small portion of the federal budget that contributes directly to national security. State's $51.6 billion request, however, faces a GOP-led House that is searching hard for discretionary budget items to cut and a foreign-policy-minded Senate that wants to use aid to press foreign governments to act more in line with U.S. priorities.
"This is a moment of historic change around the world. They are also tight times for our government and for our people -- the two truths that have guided us from day one," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides said Monday. "And so, as I'd like to remind you once again, with just 1 percent of the federal budget, the State Department and USAID will maintain our country's leadership in a changing world, what'll promote our values, jumpstart our economy, and above all keep America safe in 2013 and beyond."
Here are five of the items in the State Department's budget that will spark debates in Congress this year:
1) The top line budget numbers. The State Department and USAID requested $51.6 billion for fiscal year 2013, but $8.2 billion is categorized as temporarily needed funding for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan under what's called the Overseas Contingency Operations fund (OCO) account. The remaining $43.6 billion is the "core budget" request and represents a 10 percent increase over fiscal 2012 levels as enacted by Congress.
For fiscal 2012, lawmakers moved a lot of funding from the core budget to the OCO account in order to fit State Department funding inside the mandatory discretionary spending caps set forth in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Now, State is trying to move that funding back into its core budget so that it will have it whenever the need for emergency funding wanes.
In general, State prefers to use the OCO accounts when possible because Congress is more willing to fund programs that are needed in the current wars... and because the OCO account is off budget. ("Obviously, the benefit of the OCO account in general allows for all of you who report on this and for the Hill to look at the costs of our frontline states, to look at the costs of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan," said Nides.)
But outside experts see the OCO account, which has been used by State since last year and by the Pentagon since 9/11, as a slush fund. "I think OCO accounts are a scourge," said Gordon Adams, former national security director at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. "Special extra accounts are a refuge for budget scoundrels. Funding for all three of those countries are going to be subject to debate and dispute."
2) Middle East Funding Initiative. The administration is requesting $770 million for this new initiative, which is meant to support U.S. activities in countries affected by the "Arab Spring." This is the largest single new program in the State Department's budget request, but there's not a lot of detail in the request about how the money will actually be spent.
Nides said it's impossible to predict. "The Arab Spring has come. We need to make sure we have the tools and the flexibility in which to fund these initiatives," he said. "I cannot tell you today where that money will be spent, because we'll be, obviously, in consultation with the Hill."
Some $70 million of that total comes from existing programs, the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and USAID's Office of Middle East Partnerships (OMEP). The remaining $700 million is "new money," an administration official said. "We came to the Middle East changes without any resources dedicated to this in the budget," the official said, explaining that State has spent about $800 million since last year to respond to the protests in countries like Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, but had to cobble those funds together from other accounts.
"That will be controversial because there's no content. It's a contingency fund and Congress doesn't like to give State contingency funds," said Adams. "It's probably not a bad idea in theory but it is way too large for having no program."
3) Egypt military funding. The State Department is again asking Congress for $1.3 billion in direct aid to the Egyptian military. The $1.3 billion in military aid that Congress appropriated for fiscal 2012, however, has not been sent yet and might be held up for a while because of the escalating crisis concerning pending charges against 19 American NGO workers in Cairo. By law, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has to certify the Egyptian military is moving towards a true democratic transition before that money can be released and many top lawmakers are urging her not to do so. There are even bills to halt the funding regardless of Clinton's determination. Additionally, the administration is requesting $250 million in direct assistance to the civilian government, which it believes to be more responsible for the NGO crackdown than the military.
Nevertheless, the administration is hoping that will all be worked out by next year. "Our goal is, is to provide them those funds," said Nides. "I mean, it's obviously clear to all of us that we have issues that we need to work through. And we're working very aggressively to do so. But this budget reflects our commitment and our desire to fully fund those initiatives."
4) Pakistan civilian assistance. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is in tatters, but the administration is still requesting more than $2 billion in aid to Pakistan. But in a shift from last year, the administration is requesting significantly less money for assistance to the Pakistani civilian government while increasing requested aid for the Pakistani military. That may seem odd considering that the Pakistani military and intelligence services have been widely accused of playing both sides in Afghanistan, and that Osama bin Laden was discovered hiding in a military garrison town for years.
Nevertheless, the administration is requesting only $1.1 billion for in Pakistani civilian assistance for 2013, even thought the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill authorized up to $1.5 billion each year. Meanwhile, the administration requested $800 million under the Pakistani Counterinsurgency Contingency Fund (PCCF), a reimbursement program for the Pakistani military jointly run by State and DOD, and State is requesting $350 million in foreign military financing for Pakistan, up from $98 million in fiscal 2012.
An administration official said that becuase Congress only gave State about $1 billion last year under the Kerry-Lugar program, that's about how much they decided to ask for in FY 2013. "It's still one of the largest recipients of assistance in our budget," the administration official said. "We have a lot of negotiation to do and we'll be making that argument that we can and we'll have to figure out with Congress what the final number will be."
5) Palestinian Authority assistance.
The administration requested $370 million for economic support funding for the
West Bank and Gaza in fiscal 2013, down from the $397 million given to the PA
in fiscal 2012 but still one of the largest U.S. assistance programs in the
budget. Congress is extremely sour on PA assistance, however, because peace
talks have broken down and because Fatah and Hamas are planning to form a unity
The reduction in West Bank funding is because equipment for the U.S. police training program there has been largely completed, an administration official said. State also cut the amount of direct cash transfers to the Palestinian Authority from $200 million to $150 million. "We think the economic situation is slightly better so we think we can do a little bit less," the official said.
What's more, the administration is also requesting $79 million for UNESCO in 2013, even though the U.S. government is legally barred from contributing to UNESCO because the organization admitted Palestine as a member.
"The Congress has prohibited us for funding UNESCO this year. And as you know, the president's also articulated -- and quite clearly -- that he would like a waiver to allow us to participate in UNESCO," said Nides. "We have put the money in the budget, realizing that we are not going to be able to spend the money unless we get the waiver. And we have made it clear to the Congress we'd like a waiver."
Hundreds of supporters of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) movement converged on the State Department on Friday to hear former U.S. congressmen and senior officials call for the U.S. government to take the MEK off its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) emceed the rally in front of the State Department headquarters. The event also featured speeches by former Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA), former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former CIA Deputy Director of Clandestine Operations John Sano.
"One of the greatest moments was when my uncle, President [John F.] Kennedy, stood in Berlin and uttered the immortal words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,'" Kennedy exclaimed. "Today, I'm honored to repeat my uncle's words, by saying [translated from Farsi] ‘I am an Iranian,' ‘I am an Ashrafi."
The crowd erupted in cheers and applause and began chanting, "MEK yes, mullahs no! They are terrorists, they must go!"
Kennedy advocated taking the MEK off the terrorist list, which it has been on since 1997, and accused the Iraqi government of committing war crimes by killing innocent members of the MEK at Camp Ashraf. 3,400 MEK members live in the desert camp in Iraq under restrictive conditions.
"To my friends in the State Department behind us, who continue to hold fast to an old policy that is supported by Tehran, you are on the wrong side of history," Kennedy shouted. "To [Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki, your brutal and deadly assault on Camp Ashraf will land you in the International Criminal Court, where you will be held accountable."
"I love you," Kennedy told the crowd. "If you take the MEK off the list, you will unshackle a group that will help take out the mullahs in Iran."
Next up was Rendell, who called on the international community to militarily intervene in Camp Ashraf, comparing it to Muammar al-Qaddafi's assault on Benghazi earlier this year.
"The international community conducted a military intervention in Libya to protect innocent civilians. We should do the same thing to protect the innocent people in Camp Ashraf," Rendell said.
MEK leader Maryam Rajavi, who lives in Paris with her husband Massoud Rajavi (who hasn't been seen in public since 2003), is banned from traveling to the United States. But she spoke to the rally via a video message on a big screen, and accused the State Department of giving implicit permission to the Iranian and Iraqi governments to kill children.
"The terror listing in the U.S. is openly used as a justification to legitimize such bloodletting, by both the cruel mullahs as well as their proxy government in Iraqi," she said. "Therefore, the Iranian people are asking the United States, ‘Why are you not annulling the license to kill our children?'"
The Cable's informal headcount put the number of attendees at about 1,000 to 1,500, with long lines of young Iranian-Americans wearing shirts with photos of dead MEK members imprinted on them. Some attendees had photos of the Rajavis on their shirts. Add to that flags, confetti, and a full drum line.
We asked Kennedy if he had been paid for his appearance at the rally, but he refused to answer. Ali Safavi, president of a pro-MEK group Near East Policy Research, said the speakers were paid through a speakers bureau, which receives money from wealthy Iranian-Americans in the United States. He also said those Iranian-Americans work with the law firm DLA Piper, but he denied the allegation that DLA and these individuals help funnel money from the MEK to the former U.S. officials.
In a crowd made up of people who were mostly of Middle Eastern origin, a group of African-American attendees wearing MEK gear stood out. One man, who would only identify himself as "The Great Lonnell," was holding a "Delist the MEK" banner while wearing a shirt that said, "Behold the Great Beast."
"We are here representing on behalf of the Iranian community. This vicious dictator who is calling himself a president is murdering these people, he's slaying them, and nothing is getting done," the Great Lonnell said. "And they are here rallying to get the attention of a government that has deaf ears."
The Great Lonnell came to Washington from Staten Island, NY -- along with 200 people from a church he attends -- to support the MEK's struggle for human rights. He and his group have been attending MEK rallies for several months, he said.
The Great Lonnell then pulled your humble Cable guy aside and asked to pitch Foreign Policy another story.
"Do you want to write my own story?" he asked. "I am the Beast that will come to the earth, from Revelations in the Old Testament. I am that person."
The Cable was not able to confirm that The Great Lonnell was in fact the Beast from Revelations.
UPDATE: Zaid Jilani and Ali Gharib from ThinkProgress interviewed attendees at the rally, many who had tenuous if any links to the MEK and little understanding of why there were there. Many had traveled from far away on fully funded trips. Some appeared to be homeless. Watch the video here:
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
President Obama laid out the rationale for military action against Libya Friday afternoon, arguing that the coming attacks would be limited to protecting the Libyan people and preventing the violence there from destabilizing the region.
Obama repeatedly emphasized that the military intervention will be led by Europe and the Arab states, based on the U.N. Security Council resolution passed 10-0 Thursday evening.
"Muammar Qaddafi has a choice," Obama said. "The resolution that passed lays out very clear conditions that must be met. The United States, the United Kingdom, France and Arab states agree that a cease-fire must be implemented immediately. That means all attacks against civilians must stop. Qaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi; pull them back from Adjadbiya, Misrata and Zawiya; and establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas. Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach the people of Libya."
"Let me be clear, these terms are not negotiable. These terms are not subject to negotiation. If Qaddafi does not comply with the resolution, the international community will impose consequences, and the resolution will be enforced through military action," Obama said.
Many in Washington have called for Obama to spell out exactly why military intervention in Libya is related to U.S. core national interests, including Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), who came out against attacking Libya Thursday. Obama directly addressed this point in his remarks.
"Now, here's why this matters to us," he said. "Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Qaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Paris on Saturday to meet with her European and Arab counterparts to coordinate enforcement of the resolution, Obama said. The resolution also strengthens the arms embargo on the Libyan regime. British, French, and Arab League leaders have agreed to take the leadership role in enforcing the resolution, Obama added.
The military action will explicitly not be used to drive Qaddafi from power, the president said.
"The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya, and we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal, specifically the protection of civilians in Libya," said Obama.
In remarks Friday morning, Clinton indicated that more may have to be done beyond the no-fly zone and no-drive zone currently being set up over Libya. "While this resolution is an important step, it is only that -- an important step. We and our partners will continue to explore the most effective measures to end this crisis," she said.
Qaddafi's foreign minister Musa Kusa Friday declared a cease fire and a halt to all military operations, but Clinton rejected that declaration. "We are going to be not responsive or impressed by words. We would have to see actions on the ground. And that is not yet at all clear," she said.
A top State Department official in Tunis pledged full American support for the Tunisian drive to hold free elections on Wednesday, but also sought to distance the U.S. position on Tunisia from other mass protests in the region, such as the ongoing unrest in Egypt.
"What happened in Tunisia strikes me as uniquely Tunisian. That the events that took place here over the past few weeks derive from particularly Tunisian grievances, from Tunisian circumstances by the Tunisian people," Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said at a press conference.
He called for free and fair elections in Tunisia and pledged both American and international support to set them up.
"The United States stands with the people of Tunisia. This is an exciting and unprecedented moment in Tunisia's history with great challenges but also great opportunities for the Tunisian people to chart their own course," he said.
Feltman allowed that there are some fundamental similarities with regard to human rights.
"The challenges that are faced here are in some cases shared. And we think governments everywhere should be finding ways to permit peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the media in order to give people a say in how they are governed and to give them a stake in the future," he said.
Feltman's remarks echo Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's latest statement, which also calls on the Egyptian government to stop harassing protesters, but doesn't call on the Egyptian government to let them participate in a real election process.
"It is important that the government listens to the concerns of those demonstrating and respects rights of freedom of assembly and expression," she said. "Openness, transparency and political freedom are important tenets of stability. We urge the government and demonstrators to seek a peaceful way forward."
The Obama administration's support for Tunisians' right to self determination was on display during last night's State of the Union speech by President Obama, a speech in which he didn't mention Egypt at all.
"We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people," said Obama.
The White House issued a statement from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs at about 11:30 PM, after the president's speech had concluded, expressing U.S. support of Egyptians right to peaceful assembly, but without any call for free and fair elections.
"The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals," the statement read.
During a Wednesday morning roundtable, State Department Policy Planning Director Anne Marie Slaughter explained the seeming disparity by noting that there was consistency in the sense that both stances include a respect for "universal values."
"That means we are strongly supportive of the Tunisians in the effort to achieve democracy, it also means we are not imposing our values on countries around the world," she said.
The New America Foundation's Steve Clemons said that the George W. Bush administration, despite that it outwardly advocated for democratic change in the Arab world, might have taken a similar stance as the Obama administration has on Egypt.
"The notion that we're somehow in the streets with every potential freedom movement would be a mistake in foreign policy," he said. "If this administration was out there calling for regime change in Egypt, I think that would be a huge mistake."
The State Department and USAID, facing their most challenging fiscal environment in years, will be asking for targeted budget increases while simultaneously arguing that their overall reform effort is a money saver, the head of State's internal think tank said Wednesday. But the upcoming budget battle is going to an uphill battle for both organizations.
The State Department and USAID secured big budget increases in fiscal 2010, which the administration argued was needed due to the shrinking of both organizations' budgets over the years, the need to repair U.S. relationships abroad, and the ever increasing civilian role in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The grim fiscal picture and altered political landscape on Capitol Hill, however, threaten to reverse those gains. House Republicans leaders are promising to slash State Department and development budgets and to apply a litmus test to disbursements of foreign aid. A large group of conservative Republicans have proposed a drastic defunding of USAID.
Last week, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah argued in an interview with The Cable that increased funding for development is needed to protect national security. Today, the State Department's outgoing Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter argued in a breakfast meeting that State and USAID need even more funding in order to implement crucial reforms and clear up the bureaucratic confusion of the current system.
"We will still be asking for increases in very targeted areas," she said, referring to the administration's fiscal 2012 budget request which will be released in February. Fiscal 2011 funding will likely stay at 2010 levels due to the likelihood of a year-long continuing resolution. But Slaughter said the budget request will also call for reduced funding in other areas.
"The things that align with our priorities will be funded and those that don't align with some of these priorities will not," Slaughter said.
Slaughter also noted that the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which she helped to lead, contains the analytical arguments for more money for some State and USAID programs.
"[The QDDR] is the basis for our budget presentation," she said. "[House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana] Ros-Lehtinen said we want you to figure out how to work much better and much more efficiently. Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton's answer is, we've spend the last 18 months doing that."
Meanwhile, State will immediately begin work on the 60 percent of the initiatives in the QDDR that can be implemented without new resources.
What can't be funded in the State Department's budget could come from Pentagon coffers. What State and DOD have been doing in the warzones is to use money from the Pentagon or pooled State-DoD accounts to support missions abroad.
"It is very unlikely that we are going to see a huge shift in resources from DOD to State and USAID, but it is likely that we are going to find ways to be able to spend these resources together, with State and USAID in the lead," she said. "It's the military that understands better than anyone that is has to be civilians in the lead."
Slaughter doubled down on the QDDR's call for a unified national security budget -- which she hoped would encompass not only the State Department, USAID, and the Pentagon, but also the Department of Homeland Security and parts of the Department of Justice -- but warned it isn't coming soon.
"We do think it's feasible...I do expect a lot of work on that over the next two years," she said. "Getting there is going to take some doing."
Meanwhile, USAID must rely on the leadership of the State Department if it wants to thrive in the current cutthroat political environment, Slaughter argued.
"Could anybody right now think that USAID would be better off at a time when people are calling for defunding it completely if Raj Shah were the only one fighting for it, rather than Secretary Clinton?" she asked. "Could anybody possibly imagine that they would be in better shape to get the funding that they need?"
Slaughter steps down later this month to return to Princeton University and will be replaced by Clinton's Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan. So what will happen to the implementation of the QDDR, now that its top two officials, Slaughter and former Deputy Secretary Jack Lew, won't be around?
"It would be crazy for me to try to drive the implementation," said Slaughter, who handed off official responsibility for implementation to Deputy Secretary Thomas Nides. "We basically empowered a lot of people in the State Department and USAID who want to do this... They have to actually implement it. Otherwise it remains way too theoretical."
Tonight The Cable brings you the second annual edition of our attempt to translate the foreign policy portions of President Obama's State of the Union address:
"Before I took office, I made it clear that we would enforce our trade agreements, and that I would only sign deals that keep faith with American workers, and promote American jobs. That's what we did with Korea, and that's what I intend to do as we pursue agreements with Panama and Colombia, and continue our Asia Pacific and global trade talks."
Translation: I always promised to talk big on trade and there's no reason to stop now. We might actually get one FTA done this year...now that I don't have Pelosi to worry about. But if you were expecting specifics from me on the rest of them, you might want to stop holding your breath. These things are riddled with political land mines and they will get done only if they don't cost too much political capital.
On defense spending:
"The Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without."
Translation: I'm going to follow Gates's lead here by pretending that proposed "cuts" to the defense budget are really cuts at all, rather than mentioning that Gates and I are actually asking for increased Pentagon funding. Ain't semantics great?
"Look to Iraq, where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high; where American combat patrols have ended; violence has come down; and a new government has been formed. This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq. America's commitment has been kept; the Iraq War is coming to an end."
Translation: I'm going to continue to take credit for the one foreign policy problem that actually seems to be getting better and better. But if Maliki turns out to be another Mubarak, boy are we in trouble then.
"Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency. There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance. But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them. This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home."
Translation: We can control more space so long as we have tons of troops on the ground, but we know that isn't going to solve the overall problem with Karzai. Either way, we're going to have to try to put some lipstick on this pig and begin getting the heck out of there. But, for the meantime, let's just keep confusing everybody by throwing around unclear dates that mark unclear milestones until we figure out what we really want to do.
"In Pakistan, al Qaeda's leadership is under more pressure than at any point since 2001. Their leaders and operatives are being removed from the battlefield. Their safe-havens are shrinking. And we have sent a message from the Afghan border to the Arabian Peninsula to all parts of the globe: we will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you."
Translation: Yes, we are killing people in Pakistan when we can find them and hit them with drones, but I'll go ahead and gloss over the fact that our cooperation with Pakistan survives only as long as the Zardari government does. We've proven to the Arab world that we can't be scared into withdrawing out of the region. Now all we have to do is figure out how to withdraw from the region again.
On Iran and North Korea:
"Because of a diplomatic effort to insist that Iran meet its obligations, the Iranian government now faces tougher and tighter sanctions than ever before. And on the Korean peninsula, we stand with our ally South Korea, and insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons."
Translation: Here's one sentence of lip service to each of the two perhaps most dangerous foreign policy problems without actually spelling out what I plan to do about either of them going forward. I can't understand why our drive to stop them from building nukes isn't working. I suppose if these regimes don't see it as in their interest to have positive relations with the United States, there isn't much we can do.
On Latin America:
"This March, I will travel to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador to forge new alliances for progress in the Americas."
Translation: I was going to have to go to South America sooner or later. I guess if I can spin a visit with the Chinese president so it looks like we get along with China, doing the same with these three governments shouldn't be so difficult.
On Arab revolts:
"We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people. We must never forget that the things we've struggled for, and fought for, live in the hearts of people everywhere. And we must always remember that the Americans who have borne the greatest burden in this struggle are the men and women who serve our country."
Translation: We haven't pushed that whole "democracy" thing with Arab dictators but we can't just come out and say we support their crackdowns on protesters, now can we? I guess I can burn the (former) government of Tunisia but I'll stop short of mentioning the tear gassing of students in Egypt, lest my administration's own complicity in supporting that government come into focus. Hey, I guess maybe we can put a positive spin on WikiLeaks after all.
On China, Guantanamo Bay, the Middle East peace process, Belarus, Cuba, development, foreign aid, the State Department, human rights, cyber warfare, the national export initiative, international currency, and climate change:
This week, Foreign Policy's readers have the opportunity to pose questions directly to a senior White House official about tonight's State of the Union address by U.S. President Barack Obama.
Your humble Cable guy will participate in a roundtable Thursday, Jan. 27 with deputy national security advisor Denis McDonough. We will be posing questions selected from online submissions by you, the readers. You can submit your questions by going to FP's Facebook page and adding your question to the list.
Readers can also vote on which questions YOU think should be posed to McDonough by clicking on the "Like" button that corresponds to your favorite question. After submissions close at midnight on Wednesday, FP editors will then select a handful of questions from among the most-liked entries. Questions should be related to the State of the Union speech and be focused on U.S. foreign policy or national security policy. (Remember, the roundtable will take place after President Obama has delivered his address, so pose your questions accordingly.)
The live event will commence at 1:45 p.m. Thursday. You can tune in here on The Cable or on Passport to watch the entire session live and hear the White House's responses.
Don't miss it!
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.