The Senate voted 62-37 Thursday to approve the nomination of Maria Carmen Aponte to be the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, roughly six months after they rejected her nomination in a vote last December.
Aponte had been sent to El Salvador in late 2010 as ambassador through a recess appointment because her nomination was held up by Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Marco Rubio (R-FL). DeMint had been demanding more information about Aponte's long-ago romance with Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban-born insurance salesman who was alleged to have ties to both the FBI and Castro's intelligence apparatus.
Her recess appointment expired at the end of 2011 and a late December effort to confirm her, led by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) failed. Aponte had to return to Washington and leave her post.
Since December, Hispanic and Puerto Rican advocacy groups have been upping the pressure on Republican senators to abandon their opposition to the Aponte nomination. Congressional sources said that Rubio was confronted by these groups as well as multiple major donors over the issue.
"Senator Marco Rubio's support will be key to overcoming these hurdles and getting Ambassador Aponte confirmed. Without his backing, the U.S. will lose a stellar diplomat in an important part of the world," read a call to action by the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda.
In today's vote, Rubio switched sides and voted for Aponte's confirmation.
Other GOP senators who switched over to support Aponte were Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IL), who has little to lose by bucking his caucus now that he has been voted out of his Senate seat. Still 37 Republican senators voted against Aponte.
After the vote, Reid said that the White House had been intensely engaged over the last few weeks on the Aponte nomination. For the White House, the nomination is a way to show support for and connections with the Hispanic community in an election year.
"I'm so glad she will be able to renew her old job," said Reid. "She's an excellent ambassador. She served with distinction and that's why she was confirmed today."
Six Republican senators, all on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), have formally asked President Barack Obama to withdraw the nomination of Brett McGurk to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
The committee has set a vote on the McGurk nomination for June 19, but that vote is now in doubt.
The GOP senators' concerns include that McGurk does not have enough experience for the job, that he was a key part of the unsuccessful effort to negotiate a residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq past 2011, that he isn't accepted by some Iraqi political groups, and that his judgment and conduct in Iraq as exposed in leaked e-mails with a reporter he was dating have hurt his credibility.
"Recent information has surfaced that calls into question the prudence of moving forward with the nominee at this time," wrote Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC), James Inhofe (R-OK), Marco Rubio (R-FL), John Barrasso (R-WY), Mike Lee (R-UT), and James Risch (R-ID). "As members of the committee, with the responsibility of providing advice and consent, we write to respectfully urge you to reconsider this nomination. There are strong concerns about Mr. McGurk's qualifications, his ability to work with Iraqi officials, and now his judgment."
The letter was first reported by the Washington Free Beacon.
The senators wrote that McGurk, who has served in Iraq and in the White House in various capacities over the past 8 years, has "little direct management experience," leaving him unprepared to head up the largest U.S. embassy in the world, in the center of an extremely volatile region. His most recent position was as a senior advisor to Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, focusing on the Status of Forces Agreement negotiations in 2011 that broke down over a dispute about legal immunity for U.S. troops in Iraq.
The senators also indirectly referenced a letter from Waheed Al Sammarraie, the D.C. representative of the office of former Iraqi prime minister and opposition leader Ayad Allawi, who wrote to Congress saying that his party would not work with McGurk due to the would-be ambassador's allegedly close ties to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. That letter was later retracted and most Iraqi political groups have said they would work with McGurk if he becomes ambassador.
The senators also referenced the revelation that McGurk's relationship with his current wife Gina Chon began while he was serving as a national security official in Iraq. The Wall Street Journal accepted Chon's resignation Tuesday, saying that she had improperly shared unpublished news articles with McGurk and failed to disclose their relationship to her editors.
"The public release of information detailing unprofessional conduct demonstrates poor judgment and will affect the nominee's credibility in the country where he has been nominated to serve... Together these issues cannot be overlooked," the senators wrote. "The U.S.-Iraq relationship is of utmost importance to us, and we respectfully request that you withdraw this nominee and nominate someone with the qualifications necessary to ensure success in this position."
The White House and State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the letter. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) also did not immediately respond.
The Democrats hold a majority on the committee and could approve McGurk's nomination over GOP objections. Then the nomination would then go to the floor, where it could face holds from any or all of the senators who signed the letter. McGurk also faces opposition outside the committee from Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), and Mark Kirk (R-IL).
White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the McGurk nomination at his briefing today.
"The President has nominated Brett McGurk to be the ambassador to Iraq. We believe that our nation will be greatly served by his experience in Iraq, and we look forward to the Senate's advice and consent on his appointment," he said.
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Istanbul to convene a new worldwide forum of countries to share info and help integrate efforts to fight terrorism -- but Israel wasn't invited.
In her opening remarks at the June 7 forum, Clinton framed the terrorism challenge as a common world cause and emphasized the need to build up civilian institutions, coordinate anti-terror efforts, and establish a unified, long-term strategy for fighting terrorist groups' ideology and their sources of funding.
"We view this forum as a key vehicle for galvanizing action on these fronts and for driving a comprehensive, strategic approach to counterterrorism," Clinton said, standing alongside Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu. The United States and Turkey are the co-chairs of the initiative, known as the Global Counterterrorism Forum.
Although Clinton mentioned that terrorism is a challenge in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Maghreb, Turkey, and Europe, she didn't mention Israel or any of the groups that support terrorist attacks against Israeli interests, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
"We underscore our condemnation of all acts of terrorism, which cannot be justified on any grounds whatsoever, and our continuing commitment to oppose terrorism irrespective of the motives of the perpetrators of such acts," read the September 2011 political declaration that established the forum.
Although 29 countries and the European Union were invited to be founding members, Israel was not. After facing repeated questions at last week's briefings, the State Department put out the following explanation as to why Israel was not included:
"Our idea with the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) was to bring together a limited number of traditional donors, front line states, and emerging powers develop a more robust, yet representative, counterterrorism capacity-building platform. A number of our close partners with considerable experience countering and preventing terrorism are not included among the GCTF's founding members," the statement said. "We have discussed the GCTF and ways to involve Israel in its activities on a number of occasions, and are committed to making this happen."
The founding members are Algeria, Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Morocco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The State Department's explanation wasn't enough to satisfy critics of the administration, who point out that Israel is an ally and has more experience with terrorism and counterterrorism than, say Japan, or Switzerland.
Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) joined together Monday to protest the Obama administration's decision to exclude Israel from the new forum, in a letter to Clinton.
"As you know, there are few countries in the world that have suffered more from terrorism than Israel, and few governments that have more experience combating this threat than that of Israel," they wrote. "We strongly believe that Israel would both benefit from, and contribute enormously to, this kind of exchange. We look forward to hearing from you about whether the administration shares our view that Israel rightfully belongs as a full participant in the and what, if any, steps you are prepared to take to right this wrongful omission."
The Israeli government hasn't publicly complained about the snub and the Israeli embassy in Washington declined to comment, but multiple Congressional sources said that Israeli officials have complained privately to them, saying the Israeli government was unhappy about being left out.
"Obviously the U.S. is looking to adhere to the wishes of Turkey and the Turks have made it very clear they don't want the Israelis there," said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "But since this is a U.S.-sponsored event, hosted in Turkey, the U.S. should not be listening to anybody about who they should or should not invite."
The bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) was introduced in the Senate Tuesday and the head of the Senate Finance Committee promised he will combine it with a bill to sanction Russian human rights violators.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), who is the main sponsor of the PNTR bill and who will shepherd the legislation through his Finance Committee and then on the floor, has agreed to link it to the Magnitsky bill and pledged to pass them both this year. In doing so, Baucus secured the support of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for the PNTR bill, which includes a repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that was set in place to punish the Soviet Union for refuses to let Jews emigrate.
"It is clear the Magnitsky Act has overwhelming support in the Senate and growing support in the House," Baucus wrote in a letter today to McCain, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS). "It is equally clear that many of our colleagues are rallying around the position you have advanced -- that the repeal of Jackson-Vanik for Russia must be accompanied by passage of the Magnitsky Act. I am fully committed to ensuring that the Senate can act on both items this year."
After receiving that letter, McCain joined with Baucus, International Trade Subcommittee Ranking Member John Thune (R-SD), and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) in unveiling the PNTR legislation, which they said allows U.S. business to take full advantage of the Russian market when Russia officially joins the WTO later this summer.
"This is an opportunity to double our exports to Russia and create thousands of jobs across every sector of the U.S. economy, all at no cost to the U.S. whatsoever. We give up nothing as part of this process -- not one single tariff reduction -- so it's truly a one-sided benefit for the U.S.," Baucus said in a press release. "Jackson-Vanik served its purpose during the Cold War, but it's a relic of another era that now stands in the way of our farmers, ranchers and businesses pursuing opportunities to grow and create jobs... The clock is ticking for us to move, so we need to act now."
"As I and others have made clear, the extension of Permanent Normal Trade Relations status and the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Russia must be accompanied by passage of the Magnitsky Act," McCain said in the release. "I appreciate Senator Baucus's written commitment that he will work for Senate passage of both of these pieces of legislation as soon as possible this year. As we take steps to liberalize U.S. trade with Russia, as we should, we must also maintain our long-standing support for human rights and the fight against corruption in Russia."
The Obama administration has opposed the Magnitsky Act in public while working quietly with Cardin to make changes to the bill just in case its passage can't be avoided. The latest draft version of the bill, circulated by Cardin and obtained by The Cable, seeks to make it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill creates and adds ways for the administration to waive penalties against those violators.
By gaining McCain's support, Baucus has removed a major obstacle to the passage of PNTR for Russia. But now, with McCain on board, Baucus's PNTR bill is linked to the Magnitsky Act in such a way that if the administration opposes or seeks to water down the Magnitsky bill without McCain's agreement, both pieces of legislation could be in jeopardy.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved its own version, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, last week. The legislation is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago. But committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) doesn't support joining Magnitsky with the bill to grant PNTR status to Russia.
"Ros-Lehtinen considers PNTR separate from Magnistky and the issue of Russian human rights, and is opposed to linking Magnitsky to any effort to repeal Jackson-Vanik," her spokesperson Brad Goehner said.
A new issue has emerged in the confirmation of Brett McGurk to become the next ambassador to Iraq and it has nothing to do with the intimate e-mails he sent to a Wall Street Journal reporter in 2008.
One Republican senator is now making an issue out of McGurk's role in the case of Ali Musa Daqduq, the alleged Hezbollah commander who was transferred from U.S. to Iraqi custody last December and acquitted in an Iraqi court last month. He remains in Iraqi custody pending an automatically triggered appeal, but could be released thereafter.
The Daqduq issue is just the latest concern various Republican senators have raised over McGurk's nomination. Some GOP lawmakers want answers about his relationship in Iraq with reporter Gina Chon while he was negotiating the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement in 2008. The Wall Street Journal accepted Chon's resignation today. Others question McGurk's role in the failed negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq past 2011, and his overall qualifications for the job.
Daqduq, a Lebanese citizen whom U.S. military officials claim is a Hezbollah commander, was imprisoned by U.S. forces in Iraq and accused of leading a team that kidnapped and killed five U.S. soldiers in Iraq in January 2007. Last December, 21 U.S. senators wrote a letter urging the administration not to hand him over out of concern that the Iraqi government might release him.
On Monday, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) sent McGurk a series of questions demanding answers on the U.S. government's actions on the case as well as McGurk's personal involvement.
"How would you characterize your role in the transfer of Hezbollah terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq from U.S. to Iraqi custody?" reads the first question.
"Before the American withdrawal from Iraq last year, what steps, if any, did you take to stop the transfer of Hezbollah terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq from U.S. custody?" the next question reads.
Kirk asked McGurk if he will agree to provide Congress with copies of all State Department and National Security Council emails, letters, communications, telephone call readouts and readouts of meetings that mention Ali Musa Daqduq in all of 2011.
Kirk also wants to know what efforts are underway to get Daqduq back in U.S. custody, whether the U.S. government has formally requested his extradition, and whether McGurk would support the sale of military equipment to Iraq if the Iraqi government doesn't handover Daqduq.
Republican senators have also criticized McGurk for beginning his relationship with Chon, to whom he is now married, while he was simultaneously exchanging information with her regarding U.S. government activity.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) already cancelled a meeting with McGurk over that issue as well as over unconfirmed allegations that McGurk was caught on video engaging in improper sexual behavior on the roof of Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace in 2004.
Now, Sen. James Risch (R-ID), who praised McGurk in his confirmation hearing last week, is also expressing reservations about his confirmation.
"Prior to these email revelations, I had reservations about confirming Brett McGurk as ambassador to Iraq," Risch told The Cable through a spokesman. "Now that additional issues have been raised, more information will be needed and I reserve final judgment until all the facts are brought to light."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the first senator to raise concerns about the McGurk nomination, was apparently unswayed by last week's hearing. "His concerns regarding Mr. McGurk's time in Iraq, particularly related to his failure to negotiate a residual force as everyone envisioned, remain," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.
No senator can issue a formal hold on the McGurk nomination until the Senate Foreign Relations Committee votes to approve it, and no vote has been scheduled. But the concerns about McGurk's professional and private actions in Iraq are mounting and may reach a tipping point soon, Republican Senate aides say.
"Senator Kirk's questions touch on one of the most emotional issues involved in the McGurk nomination and several senators might have placed holds on McGurk for this reason alone," one senior GOP Senate aide said. "This, on top of McGurk's other problems, creates serious doubt as to the future of this nomination."
UPDATE: According to a State Department official, McGurk left Iraq on Oct. 22, 2011, was not involved in the negotiations with Iraq over the issue, and was serving as a senior advisor to the ambassador focused on other matters. "Simply put, Brett McGurk was not involved in the Daqduq issue in any way, shape, or form," the official said.
The nomination of Brett McGurk to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq is now facing increased opposition in the Senate due to allegations he had an affair with a reporter in Baghdad in 2008 while working as a top White House advisor and may have been videotaped while engaged in a sex act on the roof of Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace with a different woman.
McGurk, who served as a senior National Security Council official and the lead negotiator of the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement in 2008, allegedly held an extended affair with Gina Chon, a Wall Street Journal reporter, that began four years ago in Iraq, according to intimate and occasionally graphic e-mails exposed on the Cryptome website earlier this week. The Washington Free Beacon reported today that McGurk was married to another woman at the time and is married to Chon now.
The leaked e-mails, which could not be independently verified and were published on the Flikr site of an anonymous user named Diplojoke, show McGurk pursuing and then canoodling with Chon, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was also in Baghdad at the time.
McGurk and Chon did not respond to requests for comment. The State Department declined to comment.
Over in the Senate, one leading lawmaker is taking the allegations seriously. The Cable has confirmed that Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the second ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, cancelled a scheduled meeting with McGurk this week when he heard about the e-mails and an allegation that McGurk was caught on video engaged in a sex act on the roof of Baghdad's Republican Palace, as alluded to by State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren on his blog.
Inhofe's spokesman told The Cable that the senator won't proceed on the McGurk nomination until both allegations are cleared up.
"The senator always prefers to meet with nominees personally before giving his support. In regards to this nominee, Senator Inhofe has heard some concerning issues, and until those issues are cleared up, he will not meet with Mr. McGurk," Inhofe's spokesman Jared Young told The Cable.
Inhofe hasn't placed a formal hold on the McGurk nomination yet, but he is considering it.
Multiple sources told The Cable the State Department has investigated the allegation about McGurk's activity on top of the palace but was unable to find any evidence of that incident. It's unclear whether State is investigating the circumstances surrounding McGurk's affair with Chon.
Neither of these incidencts were mentioned at McGurk's confirmation hearing Wednesday. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee now must approve his nomination, but no vote has yet been scheduled.
Inhofe's objection would be only one of the several potential holds McGurk could face on his path to the nomination.
As The Cable reported in March, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) has reservations about McGurk taking on the Baghdad post over concerns that McGurk has never led an embassy and or any large organization and because McGurk was a key part of the failed SOFA negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq beyond 2011.
There are also concerns on Capitol Hill that McGurk may be too close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, impairing his ability to work with all segments of Iraq's political society. When he was nominated, Waheed Al Sammarraie, the D.C. representative of the office of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the leader of the opposition, wrote a letter to Congress that said, "I would like to inform you that Aliraqia Bloc and the liberal trend will not deal with new assigned ambassador to Iraq Mr. Brett Mcgurk for his loyalty and bounds with the Islamic party."
The House Foreign Affairs Committee marked up a bill today to punish Russian human rights violators, moving that bill closer to passage in conjunction with another bill to grant Russia privileged trade with the United States.
Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) convened her committee on Thursday morning to approve the House version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago. Her committee counterpart Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) said during the markup he supports joining the Magnitsky bill with a coming bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, which would include a repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, established to punish Russia for not allowing Jews to emigrate during the Soviet period.
"The entire world knows that the state of democracy and human rights in Russia, already bad, is getting worse," Ros-Lehtinen said at the markup. "Moscow devotes enormous resources and attention to persecuting political opponents and human rights activists, including forcibly breaking up rallies and jailing and beating those who dare to defy it. Instead of the rule of law, Russia is ruled by the lawless."
The Obama administration is publicly opposed to the Magnitsky bill, especially the effort to connect it to Jackson-Vanik repeal, and has been working behind the scenes with bill sponsors such as Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) to alter the legislation. "From our point of view this legislation is redundant to what we're already doing," U.S. Ambassador Russia Mike McFaul said in March.
One of the administration ideas is to expand the Magnitsky bill to deal with human rights violators from all countries, but doing so wouldn't eliminate strong Russian objections to the bill. A short amendment added to the House version today by Ros-Lehtinen makes clear that the bill is directed only at Russia.Cardin even came up with a new draft version of the legislation in April. The Cable obtained an internal document showing exactly what changed in the bill. For example, the new version makes it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill would create, potentially softening the bill's impact on Russian officials
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed consideration of the Magnitsky bill in April, so that the details inside the bill could be ironed out. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) has promised to take up the bill in that committee at their as yet unscheduled next business meeting. He has also said he supports joining the Magnitsky bill with legislation to repeal Jackson-Vanik.
In both chambers, the bill faces cross jurisdiction with the finance and possible judiciary committees, which means they would also have to approve the legislation, because it deals with financial sanctions and criminal prosecutions. The Senate Finance Committee under chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is where the Russian PNTR bill would begin as well, although it's not clear whether the PNTR bill, which would include the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, would be joined with the Magnitsky bill in committee or on the floor.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee also approved today a bill calling for the International Olympic Committee to hold a moment of silence at the 2012 London games to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic team members in Munich. The IOC has thus far refused requests to hold a moment of silence, saying that it is unnecessary and would establish an unwelcome precedent. That drive is being led by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Nita Lowey (D-NY), and Steve Israel (D-NY).
Another bill approved today by the HFAC would express "sense of the House of Representatives with respect toward the establishment of a democratic and prosperous Republic of Georgia and the establishment of a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict with Georgia's internationally recognized borders."
The committee also approved a resolution expressing support for efforts to combat the Lord's Resistance Army and secure the imprisonment of Joseph Kony, a bill calling upon the Turkey to reopen the Ecumenical Patriarchate's theological school at Halks, and the "Donald M. Payne International Food Assistance Act of 2012," which is mean to improve the quality and effectiveness of U.S. food assistance programs abroad.
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Singapore - Security in the South China Sea, tensions in North Korea, and the changing nature of Asian security will top the agenda this weekend at the Shangri-la Security Dialogue, the largest annual gathering of Asian and Pacific defense officials and experts in the world.
Your humble Cable guy is already on the ground as the top delegations from 28 countries, including 16 defense ministers, convene on the island city-state this weekend for the 12th annual iteration of the conference, run by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) out of London. Last year's event was packed with news, as when then Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled a new U.S. plan to increase the U.S. military commitment to Southeast Asia.
Gates met with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie at last year's event and Liang fought off verbal attacks from several regional powers on China's aggressive activities in the maritime domain. He even answered several questions posed by The Cable. Although the United States and China tried to portray an image of improving U.S.-China military ties, last year's event highlighted the deep disparity between the two country's visions for the region.
This year, the United States is sending a large, high-level delegation led by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Mark Lippert.
There will also be a hefty U.S. congressional delegation here in Singapore, including Senate Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D-Samoa), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Panetta, who is also traveling to Vietnam and India on the trip, will focus his speech in Singapore on the U.S. military shift toward Asia. He previewed those remarks in a May 29 speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.
"America is a maritime nation, and we are returning to our maritime roots," Panetta said. "America's future prosperity and security are tied to our ability to advance peace and security along the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia. That reality is inescapable for our country and for our military, which has already begun broadening and deepening our engagement throughout the Asia-Pacific."
Panetta will travel to China for the first time as Defense Secretary later this year. For Washington, the conference is a chance to drive home its commitment to Asian security, said John Chipman, director-general and chief executive of IISS. For China, the conference is an opportunity to defend its actions and intentions toward its neighbors.
"This year the U.S. will reaffirm its rebalancing to Asia, what they earlier called the ‘pivot' to Asia that they are now calling ‘the rebalancing,'" Chipman said. "China has had a challenging year with the region, which is simultaneously attracted and intimidated by Chinese power."
In a change from last year, China won't be sending an official at the defense-minister level. Sources familiar with the discussions said that due to the sensitive nature of China's impending leadership transition, the Chinese government is being unusually cautious about its public interactions.
That will shift some of the attention to the other regional powers, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and Malaysia. For example, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will give the opening keynote address. Thai defense minister Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwanatat will attend for the first time, as will the defense minister of Myanmar, Lt. Gen. Hla Min. Indian defense minister A K Antony will deliver another one of the keynote speeches.
"We know what the U.S. and China think. It will be interesting to see how the medium powers seek to frame the discussion," Chipman said. "Indonesia sees itself now not just as a leading country in Southeast Asia but as a G-20 power. It wants to play a larger role in defining the security agenda in the region."
As with many of these conferences, much of the real action will take place on the sidelines -- in a series of bilateral, small group, and off the record meetings that will occur alongside the official festivities. This year there will be an off-the-record session on tensions in the South China Sea in which Chinese and Filipino officials will participate.
Other special sessions will cover the role of armed forces in international emergencies, the evolution of submarine warfare, cyberwarfare, and the emergence of new military systems such as unmanned vehicles.
The United States, Japan, and South Korea will use the opportunity of the conference to hold a trilateral side meeting, where the North Korea nuclear issue is expected to be discussed. Indonesia, Australia, and India will hold another small multilateral meeting, possibly including Japan.
There will be more than 200 bilateral meetings in Singapore as well, in addition to the dozen or so small multilateral gatherings. That's the whole idea of bringing these officials to Singapore for three days, Chipman said.
"Almost all the defense ministers refer to it as ‘the indispensable forum' for defense discussions," he said. "It really allows for a larger variety of discussions that no other forum in Asia -- official or unofficial -- permits."
We'll be blogging and tweeting (@joshrogin) the entire time. Watch this space.
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The U.S. government considers the descendants of Palestinian refugees to be refugees, a State Department official told The Cable, and another top State Department official wrote in a letter to Congress that there are now 5 million Palestinian refugees.
The two new policy statements come in the midst of a fight over whether the United States will start separating, at least on paper, Palestinians who fled what is now Israel in 1948 and 1967 from their descendants.
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved unanimously an amendment to the fiscal 2013 State Department and foreign operations appropriations bill that requires the State Department to report on how many of the 5 million Palestinians currently receiving assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) are actually people who were physically displaced from their homes in Israel or the occupied territories, and how many are merely descendants of original refugees.
The amendment, as passed, was watered down by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) from a version proposed by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) that would have required more in-depth reporting on how many UNRWA aid recipients are now living in the West Bank, Gaza, and other countries such as Jordan. An even earlier version of the bill would have made it U.S. policy that Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, and those who are citizens of countries like Jordan are not, in fact, "refugees."
The State Department objected strongly to the Kirk amendment, claiming that any U.S. determination of the number or status of refugees was unhelpful and destabilizing and that refugee determinations are a final-status issue that must be negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
"This proposed amendment would be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides wrote Thursday in a letter to Leahy. "United States policy has been consistent for decades, in both Republican and Democratic administrations -- final status issues can and must only be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations. The Department of State cannot support legislation which would force the United States to make a public judgment on the number and status of Palestinian refugees."
"This action would damage confidence between the parties at a particularly fragile time, undercut our ability to act as a mediator and peace facilitator, and generate very strong negative reaction from the Palestinians and our allies in the region, particularly Jordan," Nides wrote.
But later down in the letter, Nides states, "UNRWA provides essential services for approximately five million refugees, including education for over 485,000 school children, primary health care in 138 clinics, and social services for the most Vulnerable, particularly in Lebanon and Gaza." (Emphasis added.)
To experts and congressional officials following the issue, that declaration was remarkable because it was the first time the State Department had placed a number -- 5 million -- on the number of Palestinian refugees.
"The Nides letter could be considered a change in U.S. policy with consideration to refugees because it states clearly that 5 million people served by UNRWA are refugees," one senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable. "For the Obama administration to stake out a position emphatically endorsing the rights of 5 million Palestinian refugees is by itself prejudging the outcome of final- status issues."
Steve Rosen, a long time senior AIPAC official who now is the Washington director of the Middle East Forum, said that by calling all 5 million UNRWA aid recipients "refugees," the State Department is saying that all the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and the nearly 2 million who are citizens of Jordan have some claim to the "right of return" to Israel, even though Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all stated clearly that a two-state solution would mean that the bulk of the 5 million Palestinian "refugees" would end up living in the West Bank or Gaza, not Israel.
President Barack Obama said in June 2011, "A lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people." In January, 2008, while a presidential candidate, Obama said, "The right of return [to Israel] is something that is not an option in a literal sense."
At the heart of the issue is what constitutes a "refugee." The entire thrust of the Kirk amendment was to challenge UNRWA's definition, which includes the descendants of refugees -- children, grandchildren, and so on. That has resulted in the number of Palestinian "refugees" skyrocketing from 750,000 in 1950 to the 5 million figure quoted by Nides today.
An analysis by the academic journal Refugee Survey Quarterly projected that if that definition remains intact, there will be 11 million Palestinian refugees by 2040 and 20 million by 2060.
In a new statement given to The Cable Thursday, a State Department spokesman said that the U.S. government does, in fact, agree with UNRWA that descendants of refugees are also refugees.
"Both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) generally recognize descendants of refugees as refugees," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told The Cable. "For purposes of their operations, the U.S. government supports this guiding principle. This approach is not unique to the Palestinian context."
Ventrell pointed out that the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees also recognizes descendants of refugees as refugees in several cases, including but not limited to the Burmese refugee population in Thailand, the Bhutanese refugee population in Nepal, the Afghan population in Pakistan, and the Somali population seeking refuge in neighboring countries.
UNHCR by default only considers the minor children of refugees to have refugee status but often makes exceptions to include latter generations. Regardless, the State Department's new statement could have wide-ranging implications.
"How many generations does it go?" asked Rosen. "I'm Jewish, and as a grandchild of several refugees, could I make a claim on all these countries? Where does it end? Someday all life on Earth will be a Palestinian refugee."
The Cable asked the State Department whether descendants of refugees get refugee status for endless generations and whether Nides's mention of the 5 million Palestinian refugees was an intentional shift in U.S. policy, but we haven't gotten a response.
The State Department statements also appear to conflict with the United States Law on Derivative Refugee Status, which allows spouses and children of refugees to apply for derivative status as refugees, but specifically declares that grandchildren are ineligible for derivative refugee status. In other words, U.S. law doesn't permit descendants of refugees to get refugee status inside the United States.
Some regional experts see Kirk's amendment as a ploy to cut some of the $250 million in U.S. funding for UNRWA and bolster Israel's position by negating rights of Palestinians that would otherwise be determined in negotiations.
Leila Hilal, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, told The Cable that to honestly determine which Palestinians remain refugees, one would have to wade into a long, complicated legal and factual analysis about which Palestinians in the region have adequate national protection that would end their refugee status.
"The rights of return and property restitution do not depend on refugee status," she said. "Ultimately, however, this congressional move is a political stunt intended to preempt final-status outcomes -- and a rather cheap one at that."
UPDATE: A State Department official confirms that yes, the descendants of refugees are still refugees for numerous generations until they return home or are resettled in a third country. The official also argued that Nides' reference to UNRWA serving 5 million "refugees" was also accurate.
"The number of people on UNRWA's rolls isn't and shouldn't be a secret," the official said. "The Kirk amendment, based on commentary surrounding it, is meant to set a stage for the U.S. to intervene now with the determination that 2nd and 3rd generation descendants have no claims and in fact aren't even Palestinians. Our interest is to avoid that. We are not predetermining numbers that the parties themselves must ultimately agree on. Nor can UNWRA."
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) participated in a candlelight vigil outside the Chinese Embassy in Seoul Thursday and chastised the Chinese government for forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees who flee to China.
"I too was a refugee," she said, standing beside Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI) and South Korea Assemblywoman Park Sun Young. "Having fled communist totalitarianism in Cuba, I have walked their lonely road and have experienced both the fears and the hopes that combine to motivate their arduous journey toward freedom."
She compared the plight of North Korean refugees to the plight of Jews fleeing Egyptian slavery as told in the Old Testament of the Bible and compared Chinese President Hu Jintao to the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II.
"To the cold-hearted regime in Beijing we call out, as Moses did to Pharaoh over three thousand years ago: Mr. Hu, let these people go! Mr. Hu, let all North Korean refugees have safe passage to South Korea and other democratic nations!" she said.
Ros-Lehtinen and McCotter posed for photos holding up a framed copy of the James R. Lilley and Stephen J. Solarz North Korea Human Rights Reauthorization Act, named after the former ambassador and former congressman who were active on the issue of North Korean refugees. The bill passed the House May 15.
"The Chinese regime has proven to be consistently tone deaf to the appeals of these two great men and other voices, including our own, calling on Beijing to meet its humanitarian obligations to North Korean refugees. And so we stand here today to appeal directly to the Chinese people to hear the cries of the oppressed in their midst," she said.
Ros-Lehtinen also called on the Chinese government to end its harassment of the friends and associates of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng. She said the fight to press Pyongyang and Beijing to halt its persecution of refugees would take a long time.
"We cannot achieve this in one day or perhaps not even in a decade. But an old Asian proverb states that a journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step," she said. "Another Asian proverb states that it is better to light a candle, as we have done tonight, than to curse the darkness. And so we lift our candles tonight."
China's record on human rights deteriorated as the Chinese government engaged in widespread and expanding severe repression of its own people and ethnic minorities in 2011, the State Department said in a new report released today.
"Deterioration in key aspects of the country's human rights situation continued. Repression and coercion, particularly against organizations and individuals involved in rights advocacy and public interest issues, were routine," reads the State Department's new Human Rights Report on China.
"Individuals and groups seen as politically sensitive by the authorities continued to face tight restrictions on their freedom to assemble, practice religion, and travel. Efforts to silence political activists and public interest lawyers were stepped up, and, increasingly, authorities resorted to extralegal measures including enforced disappearance, ‘soft detention,' and strict house arrest, including house arrest of family members, to prevent the public voicing of independent opinions," the report stated.
The Chinese government harassed public interest law firms, increased attempts to limit freedom of speech and control the Internet, and continued "severe cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Tibetan areas," the State Department determined.
The report listed dozens of ways the Chinese government represses its people, including: extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearance; "black jails"; torture and coerced confessions of prisoners; detention and harassment of lawyers, journalists, writers, dissidents, and petitioners; restrictions on freedom to assemble, practice religion, and travel; failure to protect refugees and asylum seekers; a coercive birth limitation policy that in some cases resulted in forced abortion or forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; and the use of forced labor, including prison labor.
"Corruption remained widespread," the report said.
The report also dings the Chinese government for its failure to account for the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.
"At year's end the government had not provided a comprehensive, credible accounting of all those killed, missing, or detained in connection with the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations," the report said.
More than 40,000 people have been admitted to 22 psychiatric hospitals for the criminally insane in China run by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and those patients have no means to contest their status as mentally ill, according to the report.
"Patients in these hospitals reportedly were medicated against their will and forcibly subjected to electric shock treatment," the State Department said.
As for criminal trials in China, "There was no presumption of innocence, and the criminal justice system was biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high-profile or politically sensitive cases," the report explained. "According to statistics released on the Supreme People's Court (SPC) official Web site, in 2010 the combined conviction rate for first- and second-instance criminal trials was 99.9 percent."
Of more than 1 million criminal defendants tried in 2010, less than 1,000 were acquitted.
Tibet and Tibetan populated areas of China found themselves under "under increasingly intense and formalized systems of controls, many of which appeared to be aimed at facilitating enforcement of ‘social stability' and undermining the religious authority of the Dalai Lama," the report said.
"There was severe repression of the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and movement. Authorities continued to commit serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial detentions, and house arrests. The preservation and development of Tibet's unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage and unique high plateau environment remained a concern," it said.
The congressional drive to update a 1948 law on how the U.S. government manages its public diplomacy has kicked off a heated debate over whether Congress is about to allow the State Department to propagandize Americans. But the actual impact of the change is less sinister than it might seem.
On May 18, Buzzfeed published a story by reporter Michael Hastings about the bipartisan congressional effort to change the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 (as amended by the Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987). The story was entitled, "Congressmen seek to lift propaganda ban," and focuses on the successful effort by Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA) to add their Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 as an amendment to the House version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
The new legislation would "authorize the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences." The Buzzfeed article outlines concerns inside the defense community that the Pentagon might now be allowed to use information operations and propaganda operations against U.S. citizens. A correction added to the story notes that Smith-Mundt doesn't apply to the Pentagon in the first place.
In fact, the Smith-Mundt act (as amended in 1987) only covers the select parts of the State Department that are engaged in public diplomacy efforts abroad, such as the public diplomacy section of the "R" bureau, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the body that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other U.S. government-funded media organizations.
Implementation of the law over the years has been selective, haphazard, and at times confusing, because even State Department bureaus often aren't sure if they have to abide by it. The Thornberry-Smith language is meant to fix that by applying Smith-Mundt to the entire State Department and USAID.
The Defense Department, meanwhile, has its own "no propaganda" rider, enshrined in the part of U.S. code that covers the Pentagon, and that is not affected in any way by either Smith-Mundt as it stands or by the proposed update now found in the defense bill. The only reason the Smith-Mundt modernization bill was attached to the defense bill was because that bill is one that's sure to move and Congress hasn't actually passed a foreign affairs authorization bill in years.
"To me, it's a fascinating case study in how one blogger was pretty sloppy, not understanding the issue and then it got picked up by Politico's Playbook, and you had one level of sloppiness on top of another. And once something sensational gets out there, it just spreads like wildfire," Thornberry told The Cable in an interview today.
He said the update for Smith-Mundt was intended to recognize that U.S. public diplomacy needs to compete on the Internet and through satellite channels and therefore the law preventing this information from being available to U.S. citizens was simply obsolete.
"It should be completely obvious that a law first passed in 1948 might need to be updated to reflect a world of the Internet and satellite [TV]," he said. "If you want the State Department to engage on the war of ideas, it has to do it over the Internet and satellite channels, which don't have geographical borders."
Salon writer Glenn Greenwald interviewed Smith Tuesday and wrote a story questioning whether the law would allow the State Department to try to influence American public opinion though "propaganda." He noted a press release on the Thornberry-Smith legislation which complained that Smith-Mundt had prevented a Minneapolis radio station from replaying VOA broadcasts to Somali-Americans to rebut terrorist propaganda.
Thornberry's response was to say that the 21st century media environment is already so diverse and open that opening Americans' access to one more source of information, State Department-produced news and information, was not likely to propagandize American citizens.
"It makes me chuckle. This is not 1948 when everybody was tuned to a few radio stations and the fear was that the information we were sending to Eastern Bloc countries was going to affect American politics," he said. "The idea that the State Department could be so effective as to impact domestic politics is just silly. This gives Americans the chance to see what the State Department is saying to people all over the world."
In fact, advocates of the bill tout the issue of transparency and oversight of U.S. public diplomacy as one of the main benefits of the new bill. Previously, oversight of State Department public diplomacy efforts abroad was done by an advisory commission inside the State Department that was shut down last year, while Congress and the media has little to no direct access to the material.
Thornberry said that domestic dissemination of the material will actually increase the transparency and oversight of U.S. public diplomacy by laying it bare for Americans to chew over.
"If all these bloggers see the State Department trying to influence something domestically, they will be the first to raise the alarm," he said. "It is always going to be true that you have to look at the effectiveness and truthfulness of the content of the information. But it would no longer be against the law that the American people can see it."
Matt Armstrong, who was the executive director of the State Department's advisory commission on public diplomacy before it got shut down because Congress declined to reauthorize it, explained on his Mountainrunner blog that Smith-Mundt was designed by a Cold War U.S. government that simply didn't trust the State Department to talk directly to the American people.
"The Smith-Mundt Act is misunderstood and often mistaken for ‘anti-propaganda' legislation intended to censor the Government. The reality is the original prohibition on the State Department disseminating inside the U.S. its own information products designed for audiences abroad was, first, to protect the Government from the State Department and, second, to protect commercial media," he wrote.
In an interview today, Armstrong pointed out that the Thornberry-Smith bill explicitly notes that two existing provisions of Smith-Mundt, both of which would remain intact, address concerns that the State Department might overreach in trying to influence Americans. Section 1437 of the existing legislation requires the State Department to defer to private media whenever possible and Section 1462 requires State to withdraw from a government information activity whenever a private media source is found as an adequate replacement.
He said the law as it stands is just not working and doesn't make a lot of sense. "When Cal Ripkin or Michele Kwan go to China, Americans aren't supposed to know that they went or what they did there. In addition, virtually anything that's on a U.S. embassy website is off limits," he said.
The discussion over Smith-Mundt is further distorted by a lack of understanding about what public diplomacy is and when it crosses over into "propaganda."
"Let's face it, it is impossible to communicate and not influence.. The idea here is that U.S. public diplomacy is not based on lies," said Armstrong. "There's this misconception that public diplomacy is propaganda. Propaganda is a lie, a deception, or intentional ambiguity, none of which can be lead to effective public diplomacy by any country, let alone the U.S."
Of course, the State Department's Public Affairs bureaucracy, which speaks to Americans every day in various forms, is capable of "propaganda," but is not covered by Smith-Mundt. The Cable asked State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at today's press briefing if State supported the Thornberry-Smith legislation.
"We have long thought that aspects of Smith-Mundt need to be modernized, that in a 24-7 Internet age it's hard to draw hard lines like the original Smith-Mundt [Act] did in the ‘40s," she said.
We then asked Nuland whether the State Department has any intent to propagandize American citizens.
"We do not and never have," she said with a smile.
On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee kicks off a major new effort to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, and interested senators are already preparing behind the scenes for a protracted battle over the issue.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey will testify before the committee Wednesday in the first of a series of hearings being planned by Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), who is leading the ratification effort for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, better known as the Law of the Sea Treaty.
The treaty, which came into force in 1994, established rules of the road for operating in international waters and set forth a regime for determining mineral and other rights beneath the ocean floor. Since then, 161 countries have signed on, as well as the European Union, but the U.S. Senate has not ratified it.
In an interview today with The Cable, Kerry said that he has lined up advocates and supporters of ratification from public- and private-sector constituencies to make the case for the need to ratify the treaty soon.
"I believe this can be done. There are major American businesses, gas and oil companies, mining companies, communications companies, all which have a huge interest in this. When the power of those interests is heard, senators are going to feel a sense of urgency. It is more urgent today than it has been at any time," he said.
Kerry also touted the support of national security officials and former officials from both parties and from several administrations. He said that in addition to the national security benefits of the treaty, America's economic woes gave the ratification effort an added urgency.
"This is a major effort for jobs," Kerry said, arguing that U.S. mining, mineral, and energy companies would all benefit. "The time is now because of the economic interest."
Kerry said that he wants to keep the debate away from partisan politics and argue the case for ratification on the facts and the merits of the treaty. That will be tough during a heated election season, and also because several senators strongly oppose it.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), a staunch foe of ratification, told The Cable today that Kerry has promised him another SFRC hearing for "those of us who are opposed," and said he wanted former Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton and the Heritage Foundation's Steve Groves to testify.
Inhofe said that Kerry needs to get the treaty ratified by the end of 2012.
"If they don't do it this year, they are never going to do it. That's their concern," Inhofe said. "Republicans are going to take over the Senate and then it's going to be more difficult."
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable that he was open to ratification, but only if a series of changes are made through amendments. McCain said he was already working on several of those amendments with some other as yet unidentified colleagues.
"We have to make sure that U.S. sovereignty is preserved. We want to make sure that we have absolute veto power," McCain said. "If those amendments were adopted, we could more likely support this."
McCain was extremely active in crafting amendments to the resolution of ratification for the New START agreement with Russia in 2010, but ultimately voted against that treaty. He predicted the vote would come after the election, during the lame duck session this December.
Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable he expects the treaty to pass if it comes up for a vote.
"All the military is for it. I think there is two-thirds vote for it. All of our military leaders are for it. It ought to pass; it should have passed years ago," Levin said. "It puts us at a big disadvantage not to be at that table when the discussions under that treaty take place."
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the second ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, disagreed and predicted the treaty is going nowhere this year due to other pressing matters before the Senate. Corker said he doesn't have a view on the treaty one way or the other.
"I am no place on Law of the Sea," he said. "I think there are a lot of other issues that we should be addressing... I have tried to discourage Senator Kerry from taking this up. I don't think there will be any votes between now and the election either in committee or on the floor on the issue."
The United States should not pay upwards of $5,000 for each truck Pakistan lets through to Afghanistan to aid the war effort, both leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Cable today.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met at this weekend's NATO summit in Chicago and President Barack Obama met with Zardari in a three-way exchange with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But the United States and Pakistan were not able to finalize the details of a deal to reopen the ground lines of communication through which the U.S. sends goods to troops in Afghanistan. Those supply lines have been closed since ISAF forces accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in two border outposts last November and refused to apologize for it.
One American official told the New York Times that Pakistan wants "upwards of $5,000" for each truck that crosses through its territory, whereas the fee paid by the United States before last November was about $250 per truck.
"I think that's called extortion," Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable Tuesday. "We can't look at aid in that light. It's now becoming a matter of principle."
Senate Armed Services Committee head Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable there's no way the United States should pay Pakistan fees anywhere near that level.
"Whatever the cost of the security has been, we ought to continue whatever level of support that was. This looks to me to be totally inappropriate," he said.
Levin's committee is working on the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill this week behind closed doors. That bill could contain new restrictions on U.S. aid to Pakistan.
UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Appropriations Committee proposed new restrictions on aid to Pakistan in their mark up of the fiscal 2013 State and foreign ops appropriations bill. The bill would withhold all counterinsurgency funds for Pakistan until the Pakistani government reopens the cargo supply lines to Afghanistan.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
On the eve of a fresh round of nuclear talks with Iran, the Senate on Monday passed by unanimous consent a bill imposing harsh new sanctions on Iran, sending it to a conference with the House, where the debate will move behind closed doors.
The legislation, the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, would punish any entity that provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment -- as well as communications jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the Obama administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed new assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation, named for Senate Banking Committee heads Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), would formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.
The passage of the legislation in the Senate comes one day before international negotiators meet in Baghdad for another round of discussions with Iran over its nuclear program. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) tried to move the bill through the Senate late last week, but Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) objected, arguing that the GOP hadn't had enough time to review Reid's manager's amendment, a claim Reid's office denies.
Kyl was objecting on behalf of several GOP senators who wanted the bill to explicitly mention that military options were on the table to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Kyl's demand last week to include such language was new, a response to Reid's decision to add language explicitly stating that nothing in the bill authorized U.S. military action in Iran. Reid added the new text to appease Sen. Ron Paul (R-TX), who objected to unanimous consent on the bill in March.
Here's the new language Reid added to the bill Monday:
"It is the sense of Congress that the goal of compelling Iran to abandon efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and other threatening activities can be effectively achieved through a comprehensive policy that includes economic sanctions, diplomacy, and military planning, capabilities and options, and that this objective is consistent with the one stated by President Barack Obama in the 2012 State of the Union Address: ‘Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.'"
With the addition of that language, Kyl lifted his objection.
As noted in the Washington Post's Right Turn blog, the House version of the Johnson-Shelby bill, passed in December, contains neither the language Reid added for Paul nor the language Reid added for Kyl, and has several other provisions not found in the Senate bill. The conference over the bill hasn't been scheduled and will occur in secret, per traditional congressional practice.
The conferees have not yet been named.
The most contentious part of the conference could be how to deal with a series of punitive measures proposed by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) in his own amendment to the Johnson-Shelby bill, parts of which Reid added to the Senate bill in a non-binding form.
Kirk's allies in the House have introduced separate bills containing the Kirk sanctions, which expand sanctions to include all Iranian banks and larger swaths of other Iranian corporate sectors and those bills are likely to be brought into the House-Senate conference over the Johnson-Shelby bill.
In April, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), joined with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) to introduce the Iran Financial Sanctions Improvement Act, which contains many of the sanctions measures that Kirk proposed. Other measures found in the Kirk amendment were included by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Robert Dold (R-FL) in a bill they introduced in March called the Iranian Energy Sector and Proliferation Sanctions Act.
In a statement late Monday, Kirk praised the passage of the Johnson-Shelby bill and indicated that Reid had made some commitment to strengthen the bill inside the secret conference.
"Today the U.S. Senate put Iranian leaders on notice that they must halt all uranium enrichment activities or face another round of economic sanctions from the United States," Kirk said. "I thank Leader McConnell and Senator Menendez for their support in moving this important legislation forward, and I appreciate Leader Reid and Chairman Johnson's commitment to negotiate even tougher sanctions in conference."
Neither Kirk nor Reid has explained the details of that commitment or responded to questions about it today. The administration has taken no position on the bill or on the Kirk amendment to date.
The biggest single new initiative in the State Department's $51.6 billion budget proposal for next year was a Middle East Incentive Fund -- $770 million in mostly new money to help State respond to the Arab Spring by supporting emerging democracies and their civil societies. But the House of Representatives declined to fund it in their version of the appropriations bill.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee for State and Foreign Ops didn't give any money to fund the initiative in their fiscal 2013 appropriations mark, released last month. The leaders of that subcommittee claim that State failed to give them enough detail about the program to justify the new outlay of funds. Now, the State Department is depending on its allies in the Senate to save the program when the Senate Appropriations Committee marks up its bill next week. The episode is an example of the disconnect between State and Congress over how to respond to the Arab Spring as well as the difficulty of securing new money for diplomatic initiatives in this tight budget environment.
"This is something that Secretary Clinton has really -- and with the President -- has focused principally on," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides said in February when announcing the initiative. "The notion is we're in a new world. The Arab Spring has come; we need to make sure we have the tools and the flexibility in which to fund these initiatives. I cannot tell you today where that money will be spent because we'll be, obviously, in consultation with the Hill. We'll be coming up with initiatives that we'll then be discussing with the Hill."
"But this is something we coordinated and talked a lot about with our friends on the Hill, the idea is to have some flexibility to support everything from Tunisia, to support areas like potentially in Egypt and in areas where things are changing every day in Syria, things where changing, the world is evolving as we see it, and we felt it was important to have a pool of money," he said.
At the time, budget experts warned that it would be difficult for the State Department to get Congress to spring for the program because State didn't seem to have a lot of detail about what the money would be used for.
"That will be controversial because there's no content. It's a contingency fund and Congress doesn't like to give State contingency funds," said former Office of Management and Budget National Security Director Gordon Adams at the time.
State did brief all the relevant committees on the new fund and provided as much detail and context as they could, but it wasn't enough for the House subcommittee leaders, Reps. Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY).
"The administration could not justify the broad authority requested to override existing laws. However, the House bill does provide State some flexible funding to be responsive, within the existing account structure, while increasing congressional oversight on key countries," Granger's spokesman Matt Leffingwell told The Cable.
The "existing account structure" he referred to is the economic support funds that are given each year on a country-by-country basis. Congress prefers granting State country-specific aid because it's easier to track and oversee.
"Congresswoman Lowey supports U.S. engagement in the region and believes we must have the flexibility to respond to rapid changes and developments. Existing accounts within the bill provide that important flexibility," Lowey's spokesman Matt Dennis told The Cable.
Outside experts working closely on the issue said that the State Department didn't properly explain the new fund or its benefits to Congress and didn't have specific enough proposals to give lawmakers assurance the money would be spent wisely.
"This incentive fund is an important new initiative, but unfortunately it seems the administration has done a pretty poor job of pitching it to the hill. There's a lot of confusion in Congress about what this fund is for and why it's important," said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.
"This fund should be a signature initiative of the administration to respond to the historic events in the region, and these funds could be essential to the administration's ability to respond to events that haven't yet unfolded in places like Syria, where there is no existing U.S. assistance package in the budget," said McInerney.
Using economic support funds is not a great option because those funds are already devoted to specific causes and diverting them from other places would hurt other priorities, McInerney argued.
"The administration won't be able to use that flexibility without significant cuts to existing programs. Without some support from Congress, it's really tough to get it off the ground," he said.
Tamara Wittes, head of the Brookings Institute's Saban Center on the Middle East, pointed out that within the $770 million State requested for the new fund, it included a $65 million annual request for an existing program called the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is how State has been funding civil society development in the region. So now, MEPI's funding is also at risk.
"Congress may not realize that MEPI funding was embedded in this proposal, but they need to be aware of the impact of their decision on America's ability to partner with citizens in the region who are working for positive change," she said. Wittes was head of the MEPI office and deputy director of State's new Middle East Transitions Office before she left government earlier this year.
The new Middle East Incentive Fund is State's way of trying to shift America's aid approach in the region from the military-dominated focus of the recent decades to an approach focused on the promotion of civil society and political reform, said Wittes.
"We have to look at the overall ratio of our assistance and how that is seen by the people of the region. In order to seize the opportunity that the Arab Spring presents, we need to shift the logic of our relationships to one that emphasizes projects with people," she said.
The fight to save the fund now goes to the Senate, where the Senate Appropriations Committee is set to mark up its State and Foreign Ops bill as early as next week. David Carle, the spokesman for State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), told The Cable, "Sen. Leahy does intend to include some amount for the fund, for the reasons the administration requested it -- to provide flexibility to respond to changing events in the ME and NA regions."
The Senate subcommittee hasn't decided how much of the request to support. Their version of the bill could be conferenced with the House version. More likely, Congress will not complete any appropriations bills this year and the two versions will simply inform a temporary funding measure crafted by congressional leadership in late September.
The new fund does have one powerful staunch supporter in Congress, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA).
"This is something that's been percolating a long time on the Hill and in the administration and it's really a no-brainer," Kerry told The Cable in a statement. "We're witnessing a period of historic change in the Middle East, and it's impossible to predict what will happen next month, let alone next year, which is why the State Department should have the flexibility to deal with unforeseen contingencies. Positive incentives for economic and democratic reforms also make sense. American assistance in itself may not convince governments that are resisting reform to change, but in places that have already begun to chart a new course, like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, it can help empower moderates and reformers."
The State Department declined to comment.
UPDATE: A reader points out that the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee's report on the bill does direct $70 million to MEPI, separate from the Middle East Incentive Fund.
The Defense Department and Congress are playing chicken over $600 billion of mandatory defense cuts identified by a process known as "sequestration," but a compromise probably won't surface until after the November elections, according to former top Obama defense official Michèle Flournoy.
"I think during that period after the election and before the sequestration goes into effect [on Jan. 3], that will be the period when people will become intensely focused on this," Flournoy said in response to a question from The Cable at an event Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute.
Flournoy, who stepped down in February as under secretary of defense for policy, was speaking on a panel with retired Gen. David Barno, now with the Center for a New American Security, AEI's Tom Donnelly, and Michael Waltz of the New America Foundation.
Flournoy said she was not aware of any planning going on inside the Pentagon for the possibility that sequestration will occur, even though President Barack Obama has promised to institute the cuts if Congress doesn't find a way around them. The Budget Control Act of 2011, passed by both parties and signed by Obama, would mandate $600 billion in defense and $600 billion in cuts to non-security spending, such as funds for Medicare providers, over 10 years if Congress doesn't agree on $1.2 billion worth of discretionary spending cuts over the same time period.
"The onus is really on Congress to exercise the discipline, the political courage, the pragmatism to reach a budget deal that avoids sequestration, which would impose draconian cuts in a mindless way that would have severe and negative impacts for our national security," she said.
Flournoy said that a short-term solution could be possible, but probably not before the election, because any compromise would be a "huge political risk" for a candidate facing voters. She emphasized that a deal to avoid sequestration should include cuts to programs favored by Democrats and Republicans alike.
"I think frankly we would be wise to spend our time trying to build a balanced package ... tax reform, spending cuts, and more investment in things that drive American competitiveness," she said.
Asked by The Cable if she thought it was time for a woman to become secretary of defense and whether she would take the job, Flournoy demurred: "I didn't hear your question."
Barno said the lame-duck session will be filled with emergency issues that Congress will want to deal with, such as the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the Alternative Minimum Tax, Medicare physician benefits, and another fight over increasing the debt ceiling.
"We definitely have a looming train wreck in December," he said. "In that list, sequestration for defense is going to be fairly low on that pecking order, if you look at how many American homes it would immediately impact."
Donnelly argued that so far, only Republicans have put forth any concrete ideas to avoid sequestration. There are bills in the House and Senate that would take the money from federal workforce reductions, but last week House leadership unveiled an entirely new idea.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) wrote in an op-ed last week that the money should be taken from a host of spending items, including food stamps, federal workforce benefits, and by prohibiting future government bailouts.
"These savings will replace the arbitrary sequester cuts and lay the groundwork for further efforts to avert the spending-driven economic crisis before us," they wrote. "Unless we act, the sequester will take effect. We do not believe this is in the national interest, and the President claims that he agrees."
The panel was moderated by AEI's Danielle Pletka, who was filling in for Peter David, the Washington bureau chief of the Economist, who died in a car accident last weekend.
Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa came to Washington this week to attend his son's college graduation, but he left with hands full of gifts from the U.S. State Department, which announced new arms sales to Bahrain today.
The crown prince's son just graduated from American University, where the Bahraini ruling family recently shelled out millions for a new building at AU's School of International Service. But while he was in town, the crown prince met with a slew of senior U.S. officials and congressional leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain, as well as several other Washington VIPs.
On Friday afternoon, the State Department announced it was moving forward on a host of sales to the Bahraini Defense Forces, the Bahraini National Guard, and the Bahraini Coast Guard. The State Department said the decision to move forward with the sales was made solely in the interest of U.S. national security, but outside experts see the move as meant to strengthen the crown prince in his struggle inside the ruling family.
"We've made this decision, I want to emphasize, on national security grounds," a senior administration official told reporters on a Friday conference call. "We've made this decision mindful of the fact that there remain a number of serious, unresolved human rights issues in Bahrain, which we expect the government of Bahrain to address."
The official noted that the United States is maintaining its hold on the sale of several items the Bahrainis want, including Humvees, TOW missiles, tear gas, stun grenades, small arms and ammunition.
"The items that we are moving forward with are those that are not typically used for crowd control and that we would not anticipate would be used against protesters in any scenario," the official said.
The official declined to specify items on the list, but multiple sources familiar with the details told The Cable they include six more harbor patrol boats, communications equipment for Bahrain's air defense system, ground-based radars, AMRAAM air-to-air missile systems, Seahawk helicopters, Avenger air-defense systems, parts for F-16 fighter engines, refurbishment items for Cobra helicopters, and night-vision equipment.
The United States also agreed to work on legislation to allow the transfer of a U.S. frigate, will allow the Bahrainis to look at (but not yet purchase) armored personnel carriers, and will ask Congress for $10 million in foreign military financing for Bahrain in fiscal 2013.
Opponents of arms sales to Bahrain were quick to criticize the package, arguing that the administration is sending the wrong message to the regime at a time when the violence between government forces and protesters is actually increasing, as are allegations of prisoner abuse by Bahraini security forces.
"This is exactly the wrong time to be selling arms to the government of Bahrain. Things are getting worse, not better," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a statement to The Cable. "The country is becoming even more polarized and both sides are becoming more entrenched. Reform is the ultimate goal and we should be using every tool and every bit of leverage we have to achieve that goal. The State department's decision is essentially giving away the store without the government of Bahrain bringing anything to the table."
On the conference call, administration officials could not name one concession or deliverable the crown prince gave or promised in exchange for the goodies he is bringing home with him.
But outside analysts believe the administration's strategy is more nuanced, and that the real goal of the arms sales is to bolster the crown prince's standing inside the ruling family in his pitched battle with hard-liners over the way ahead.
"The administration didn't want the crown prince to go home empty-handed because they wanted to empower him," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who was arrested in Bahrain while documenting protests there last month. "They placed a lot of hope in him, but he can't deliver unless the king lets him and right now the hard-liners in the ruling family seem to have the upper hand."
The crown prince has been stripped of many of his official duties recently, but is still seen as the ruling family member who is most amenable to working constructively with the opposition and with the United States. It's unclear whether sending him home with arms sales will have any effect on internal Bahraini ruling family politics, however.
"That's the gamble the administration is taking, that it helps him show he can deliver something," Malinowski said. "But there's no guarantee the government will do what we all hope it does. They might just as easily conclude ‘We don't have to empower the crown prince at home; we just have to send him to America.'"
While the crown prince has been in Washington, hard-liners like the prime minister and the minister of the royal court have wielded their control over state media to bash the United States and accuse the U.S. government of fomenting the unrest in Bahrain.
"[The] trend in Bahrain is the redoubling of the anti-American media onslaught witnessed in most aggressive form last summer. This is usually a very clear sign that the State Department is pressuring for a deal to be done, and that some in the royal family are fighting back via their allies in society," wrote Justin Gengler, an academic and blogger focused on Bahrain.
He detailed a list of conspiratorial, anti-American allegations in the Bahraini state-controlled media over the last two weeks and noticed that the state media is focusing again on the case of Ludo Hood, the former political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain who was sent home "after being the focus of threats by pro-government citizens."
A high-level delegation from the opposition al-Wefaq party was in Washington this week as well, but they did leave empty handed.
"Many in the administration want to empower the crown prince as the reformer in the royal family against the hard-liners, and didn't want to send him home empty handed after his visit," said Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. "But no matter how you look at it here in Washington, on the street in Bahrain this will be perceived as the U.S. supporting a regime that is still doing horrible things."
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
Frustration with North Korea's ongoing nuclear weapons and missile programs has pushed Congress to reopen the debate in Washington over whether the United States should reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea.
The House Armed Services Committee adopted an amendment to the fiscal 2013 national defense authorization bill that supports "steps to deploy additional conventional forces of the United States and redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Western Pacific region," and mandates that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta submit a report on the feasibility and logistics of redeploying forward-based nuclear weapons there, "in response to the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons developments of North Korea and the other belligerent actions North Korea has made against allies of the United States."
The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), was approved by a vote of 32-26, with all Republicans, except for Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), and two Democrats in favor. It comes only weeks after another committee member, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), demanded the administration investigate North Korea's apparent acquisition of Chinese-made mobile ICBM launchers.
"We in the last many years have appealed to China to help us negotiate with North Korea to bring them in line in the quest for peace in the world... In fact, China has now embarked on selling nuclear components to North Korea," Franks said at at the committee's Wednesday markup. "Consequently it's become time for us as a nation to look to our deterrent and our ability to take care of ourselves and work with our allies to do everything we can to deter and to be able to defend ourselves against any future belligerence or threats from North Korea."
The United States stockpiled nuclear weapons in South Korea for 33 years before President George H.W. Bush removed them in 1991 as part of his effort to withdraw all overseas tactical nukes, except a few in NATO countries. Since then, every so often South Korean politicians raise the idea of reintroducing them as a response to North Korean aggression.
One senior South Korean politician argued this week that North Korea's ongoing belligerence justified a new discussion about the issue.
"There is no reason not to respond in a proportional manner [to the DPRK's military threat]," Conservative Party lawmaker and presidential candidate Chung Mong-joon said in a press conference in Seoul on Thursday. "The threat of a counter-nuclear force may be the only thing that can change North Korea's perception of South Korea."
In early 2011, the White House WMD Czar Gary Samore told a South Korean reporter that the U.S. would be willing to deploy tactical nukes to South Korea, after which the White House quickly backpeddled Samore's remarks and insisted the issue was not under discussion.
"Our policy remains in support of a non-nuclear Korean peninsula," Robert Jensen, deputy spokesman for the National Security Council, told Yonhap News Agency after the Samore comments. "There is no plan to change that policy. Tactical nuclear weapons are unnecessary for the defense of South Korea and we have no plan or intention to return them."
The Obama administration and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) are beginning a new push to seek ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, known around Washington simply as the Law of the Sea Treaty.
The treaty, which came into force in 1994, established rules of the road for operating in international waters and set forth a regime for determining mineral and other rights beneath the ocean floor. Since then, 161 countries have signed on, as well as the European Union, but the U.S. Senate has not ratified it.
In fact, the treaty has never come up for a full vote, despite support from multiple administrations, Democrats, and the Navy, which views it as needed to allow the United States to fully participate in the growing multinational system that governs the open seas. It is vigorously opposed by some Republicans, who argue that signing it would be tantamount to an abandonment of U.S. sovereignty.
Kerry's efforts to initiate the months-long ratification process on the treaty began last year. He has met with a host of senators on the issue, and his staff has been consulting with businesses and the military and respected national security experts in both parties. But the drive to set up hearings to promote the bill stalled.
Hill staffers say that Kerry's committee counterpart Richard Lugar (R-IN) did not want the ratification process to begin before his primary, because he was inclined to support the treaty but recognized that his support could be used against him politically. But with Lugar now out of the way, the ratification process is back on track.
Kerry will soon announce the first hearing, which will be made up of a panel of high-ranking military officials, The Cable has learned. It will be a "24-star hearing," meaning the panel will have six military officers with four stars each.
"Senator Kerry has heard for a long time that it'd be helpful for the committee to hold some hearings and review a treaty that hasn't been examined since 2007. The Senate has experienced massive turnover since that period, with 30 new senators," Kerry's Communications Director Jodi Seth told The Cable.
She denied, however, that the timing of Lugar's primary was the reason for the delay.
"Senator Kerry considered holding hearings last year, but it wasn't feasible after he was asked to serve on the Super Committee, and there have been other urgent issues from Iran to Syria and the State Department budget that have required the [SFRC's] immediate attention this spring," said Seth. "But now, after hearing from conservative-minded businesses, national security experts of both parties, and the military, all of whom strongly support the treaty, Senator Kerry decided the time was right to initiate some hearings and he hopes they'll be helpful for the committee."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also pushed for a new ratification process to pass the treaty in Wednesday remarks at a Law of the Sea symposium in Washington. Panetta called on the Senate to embrace Lugar's bipartisan spirit.
"Our country desperately needs the bipartisan spirit he embodied. It would be an enormous tribute to Senator Lugar's distinguished record to accede to this convention on his watch," Panetta said.
He also laid out the administration's main arguments in favor or the treaty: that U.S. accession to the treaty would allow the United States to secure mineral rights in a larger geographical area, would ensure freedom of navigation for U.S. ships, and would give the country better leverage for claims in the Arctic.
Panetta warned that in failing to ratify the treaty, the United States would "give up the strongest legal footing for our actions."
"We potentially undercut our credibility in a number of Asia-focused multilateral venues -- just as we're pushing for a rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere," he said. "How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven't officially accepted those rules?"
Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng's best friend in Congress, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), told The Cable on Tuesday that the Obama administration has failed to stand up for Chen's cause, the abuse of women under China's one-child policy.
In an interview in the Capitol building, Smith said he intends to hold another congressional hearing on May 15 on the Chen case -- to follow up on the hearing he held May 3, which Chen actually phoned into. Smith has invited Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and State Department Counselor Harold Koh to the hearing, but those officials have yet to RSVP.
"I don't think they want the hearing frankly. But we need to keep the focus on this," Smith said.
If and when administration officials do show up to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, Smith plans to press them on two things: The fight against forced abortion and forced sterilization that led to Chen's initial imprisonment and the plight of Chen's friends and extended family members who are undergoing government harassment in China.
"The administration has hermetically sealed his message, the man and why he was in trouble, from this incident," Smith told The Cable. "Have you heard anybody talk about that he was defending women from forced abortion? Hillary Clinton? Not a word. I Googled it."
Smith said that the administration has been avoiding any reference to the issue, which they haven't done for similar human-rights related cases in countries other than China.
"Can you imagine the president saying ‘no comment' on Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi? He would launch into what they stood for as well as their personal plight," Smith said. "They say his name but they don't talk about his message. It's more than troubling."
The State Department feels confident the Chinese government will honor its pledge to allow Chen study in the United States and bring his wife and son in tow. But Chen's mother, nephew, and several activists who supported him are still in legal limbo and facing increasingly violent retribution, Smith said.
Smith referred to the case of Jiang Tianyong, Chen's lawyer, who was arrested and beaten badly last week on the way to visit Chen in the hospital. Jiang remains under house arrest. Other figures in Chinese government hands include Chen's nephew, Chen Kegui, and He Peirong, the woman who drove Chen to the embassy.
Smith said he can't get answers from the administration on what's being done to secure the safety of those individuals.
"I've conveyed that to everybody at the State Department. They know about it. But what are they doing about it? That's the question."
The departure of Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) from Congress will cause a reshuffle of foreign policy leadership in the GOP Senate caucus and could thrust Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) into a prominent role.
With Lugar losing his primary on Tuesday to Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, the position of top Republican on SFRC is set be to be vacant. The next three senators in line for that spot are Corker, James Risch (R-ID), and Marco Rubio (R-FL), in that order. With the possibility that Republicans could retake the senate in November, Lugar's successor on the committee could become chairman. Either way, the new top Republican on the committee will fundamentally change the character of the panel.
Lugar was known for his statesman-like approach, his deep attention to several specific issues such as nuclear non-proliferation, and his willingness to work with the administration and Democrats, for example on big projects like the New START nuclear reduction treaty with Russia. Perhaps due to his bipartisan character when it came to foreign policy, he was somewhat marginalized toward the end of his tenure by a caucus leadership that was determined to take a more combative and partisan approach to dealing with the Obama administration.
"While Dick and I didn't always agree on everything, I found during my time in the Senate that he was often willing to reach across the aisle and get things done," President Barack Obama said in a statement Tuesday evening.
As his primary campaign heated up, Lugar became distinctly more cautious on foreign policy matters, perhaps in recognition of the fact that his advocacy for New START, one of the administration's premier foreign policy projects, had hurt him politically inside the party. Lugar staunchly opposed the intervention in Libya last year and is firmly against the United States getting more deeply involved in the Syrian crisis now.
Behind the scenes, Lugar's staff is hugely active on a range of foreign policy issues. Not quite as bipartisan as Lugar himself, the GOP minority staff at SFRC butts heads with the majority staff at times. The personal relationship between Lugar and chairman John Kerry (D-MA) has always been cordial in public, although some say less cordial in private.
When Lugar leaves, the most likely choice to replace Lugar is Corker, a Tennessee businessman who like Lugar, opposed the war in Libya and opposes intervention in Syria. But Corker's foreign policy stance is even more wary of using U.S. power in foreign lands. He said earlier this year he doesn't even believe the Syrian revolution is about "democracy."
Corker was on the fence during much of the New START debate. He felt the treaty wasn't very significant in terms of nuclear reductions, and used the negotiations within Congress more as chance to secure funding for nuclear facilities, some of which are in his state. Corker is very effective at defending funds for nuclear modernization and stockpile maintenance.
Corker doesn't have a firm position on what to do in Afghanistan and he wasn't particularly vocal on the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. He's seen on Capitol Hill as someone would have a bit of a learning curve ahead of him were he to become SFRC chairman or ranking member.
Behind the scenes, Corker has a very active foreign policy staff that is said by Hill sources to not get along well with Lugar's staff. If Corker takes over as lead Republican on the committee, there could be a house cleaning on the staff side.
But Corker's accession is not assured. The Republican committee members have the power to vote for whomever they want. In fact, after the 2010 election, there was an effort to vote Lugar out of the ranking member's position, but Lugar prevailed by a slim margin.
For some Republicans both on and off Capitol Hill, Corker is seen as neither aggressive nor hawkish enough on key foreign policy issues.
"It's difficult to make the case that someone who doesn't even see the merits of the fall of Bashar al-Assad for American interests deserves to have the top Republican spot on the committee," said one GOP foreign policy pundit. "There are other Republicans, such as Sen. Rubio, who have advocated a much more coherent and thoughtful foreign policy vision that might make them more appealing replacements for Sen. Lugar."
Rubio has laid out a foreign policy vision that tracks more closely with hawks like Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). He is also seen as a rising star on foreign policy in the party and an SFRC chairmanship could bolster Rubio's national security bona fides ahead of a possible 2016 presidential run.
In the end, Corker might not even want the job. He is also currently in line to take over the top Republican spot on the banking committee, currently held by Richard Shelby (R-AL), who is barred by the rules from continuing on in that role due to committee term limits. If Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the ranking member on the finance committee loses his election, then Shelby's presumptive successor Mike Crapo (R-ID) would move over to take the top GOP spot on the finance committee, leaving Corker as the top Republican on banking.
Corker might prefer banking over SFRC -- and he can't chair both. Risch also has several possibilities for chairmanships that next year that could change the game on who gets moved up at SFRC.
In the end, some of Lugar's Senate colleagues said that his defeat showed the shrinking room for moderates in the Senate and the lowering national tolerance for those whose focus is beyond America's shores.
"There are people ideologically driven on the right and the left who want to pick up seats, look at what happened to Sen. Lieberman," said Graham in a short interview. "The lesson to be learned is vote your conscience and if you're an incumbent, you better not lose touch with home."
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
The United States needs to do more to protect civilians in Syria, including considering setting up safe zones inside Syria and potentially arming the opposition, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable in an interview Tuesday.
Kerry also warned that if the balance of power is not tilted in Syria in the opposition's favor, it's unlikely that President Bashar al-Assad will step down. A political transition that sees Assad removed from power remains the goal, he said, but the United States must step up its efforts to make that goal a reality.
"You have to change the current dynamic. That's to me the bottom line," Kerry said. "We have to increase the pressure, change the calculations, and succeed in creating a capacity for a movement to a negotiated reform process with a transition that takes place through elections at the right moment."
"That's could be something Russia might buy into and the international community might as well, but Assad won't unless the on the ground calculations change," said Kerry, who just returned from a conference in Jordan that included Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Kerry said his trip had helped convince him that more must be done to help the internal Syrian opposition, well beyond the low levels of humanitarian and communication aid the United States is providing now.
"The concept of a safe zone is a reality and worth the discussion. The concept of working with the Turks and the Jordanians, if everybody is on the same page, there could be some [military] training [of the opposition forces]. If we can enhance the unity of the opposition, we could consider lethal aid and those kinds of things," Kerry said.
But he cautioned that the United States should insist on greater unity within opposition ranks before it provides lethal aid, noting that international efforts to train opposition fighters could help establish that very unity. Safe zones within Syria would have to be defended by some foreign military force, but not necessary the United States or NATO, Kerry explained.
"King Abdullah [of Jordan] made some very interesting suggestions about Jordanian possibilities with respect to that and the Turks also have some options," he said. "I'm talking about Gulf states and the Arab League engaging and leading on this with NATO perhaps as a support structure behind the scenes to back it up," he said.
Asked if there were any conditions under which he would support U.S.- or NATO-led airstrikes on the Syrian military, Kerry said, "Sure."
"If Assad was killing his people in a continued massive way without any regard to his word, the truce, the inspections, and monitors, etc.," Kerry said, adding that we haven't yet gotten to that point.
"Of course the violence is continuing, but not in the kind of way that would suggest to you that airstrikes would make the difference," he continued. "There are a bunch of things that would need to start happening before you put that on the table."
Kerry confirmed that there's a debate inside the administration on when to officially declare that U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan's plan has failed, even though two administration officials said last month that the plan "is failing." The question is whether to let Annan declare it himself or to round up partners and allies and preempt Annan by calling it earlier.
"My view is it would be better for Annan to make a judgment about his own mission but his mission cannot become a vehicle of interminable delay, and we have to be prepared to take measures necessary to protect life and move the process," Kerry said. "If [Annan] can pull a rabbit out of a hat, terrific, but I think we have to be planning a lot of contingencies while he's operating because I'm not optimistic."
Kerry sees new hope that the United States and Russia can find some common ground on the way forward in Syria, and he sketched the outlines of what that might look like.
"There were distinct ways in which hopefully we can get on the same page in order to create a process that might be helpful. You don't want the place to just collapse," Kerry said. "There's a unanimity that Assad has to be part of the transition and to get him out. The question is how. [Lavrov] thinks that Assad has to transition out of there in a respectful way, through a peaceful process."
Any effort to intervene directly in Syria should be Arab-led, Kerry said, but he denied the accusation that the United States is failing to lead or even "leading from behind," as many Republicans allege.
"This ‘failing to lead' refrain is just a political refrain," he said. "The United States doesn't have to go off and do everything to be the leader. Actually, it's pretty smart to get somebody else to do some things for you. You save the American taxpayer a few dollars, you don't put American troops at risk, and you get the job done."
Kerry noted that the administration is planning for a range of contingencies, including safe zones. But the administration has been clear that it has no intention of providing lethal aid to the opposition or using U.S. or NATO assets to directly confront Assad's forces.
In remarks May 6 to the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough said that the administration recognized that Assad has no intention to halt the violence but said that the administration had not yet reached the point of abandoning the Annan plan or abandoning their current approach, which relies solely on diplomatic and economic pressure.
"And the question is whether you make the leap to the next step, which is either the United States undertakes military action or enables others to take military action," McDonough said. "Obviously we plan for every contingency, in the event we need that, but we just don't think the analysis at the moment is that-we do not believe that intervention hastens the demise of the regime."
The House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee has released its fiscal 2013 appropriations legislation, which would cut billions from the president's request for a range of key international programs.
The bill, to be marked up by the subcommittee Wednesday morning, would provide $40.1 billion for the base budget of the State Department, USAID, and international affairs programs in other agencies, in addition to $8.2 billion for diplomatic and development programs related to the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan in what's known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. If enacted, the legislation would represent a 12 percent cut from the administration's $54.71 billion budget request.
When war costs are taken out of the equation, the House proposal would represent a 14 percent cut to the administration's request. The House proposal would also cut $5 billion or 9 percent from the funding levels enacted in fiscal 2012.
The Senate Appropriations Committee, in its own allocations, proposed giving the State and foreign operations accounts $53 billion, roughly equal to fiscal 2012 levels, although the Senate proposed shifting $5 billion from the OCO account to the base budget. The Senate could mark up its version of the bill as early as next week.
"This is a tough, effective national security bill that continues to cut spending, reform our aid programs, and demand accountability from our partners and allies," Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) said in a release. "This bill reflects principled funding decisions that give the United States the flexibility to respond to a rapidly changing world while making sure our foreign aid is not a blank check for foreign governments who do not support our national security priorities."
Her Democratic counterpart, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), was more critical of the committee's proposal. She told The Cable that the House was cutting unnecessarily, considering that the overall discretionary allocations determined by the Republican majority, amounting to $1.028 trillion, was under the $1.047 trillion limit allowed under the Budget Control Act of 2011, the deal struck last year to avert a crisis over the debt ceiling.
"The proposed funding levels are insufficient for our nation to respond to health, education, and security challenges; make critical investments in diplomacy and development; and ensure robust oversight over taxpayer funds," Lowey said. "As the appropriations process moves forward, I will work to protect critical priorities and remove onerous policy riders that hurt our ability to maintain moral leadership worldwide."
The House subcommittee's bill contains several policy riders that have appeared in previous bills but are staunchly opposed by congressional Democrats and the administration. The legislation would reinstitute the so-called Mexico City policy, also known as the "global gag rule," which would bar funding to any international organizations that discuss abortion. The bill would also cap spending on family planning and reproductive health programs at the fiscal 2008 level.
According to a committee-issued press release, the bill also "maintains long-standing pro-life riders, including the ‘Tiahrt Amendment,' which ensures family planning programs are voluntary; the ‘Helms Amendment,' which bans ‘foreign aid from being spent on abortions; and the ‘Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which prohibits funds to organizations the President determines to support coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization."
For the State Department and USAID, the bill proposes cuts across the board, including steep cuts to programs that focus on multilateral institution building.
The State Department would be forced to operate with $433 million less than in fiscal 2012. The committee proposed giving State $12.9 billion for operations, $1.5 billion less than the president's request. USAID would get $1.2 billion in operations funding under the bill, a reduction of $73 million from last year's level and $252.5 million below the president's request.
On the United Nations, the House is proposing cutting U.S. funding for the U.N.'s Human Rights Council, the U.N. population fund, and any U.N. organization led by a "terrorist country." The bill provides no funding for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), following U.S. law that prohibits funds for any U.N. organization that has admitted Palestine as a member. Other U.N. agencies would see partial reductions in U.S. contributions until they provide full financial audits.
The bill would cut $632 million from the president's $7.9 billion request for international security assistance. Inside that total, the bill would fully fund the administration's $3.1 billion request for assistance to Israel and the $300 million request for assistance to Jordan.
The bill would also cut $3 billion from the administration's $17.2 billion request for bilateral economic assistance while proposing increased funding above the president's request for global health programs, refugee assistance, and democracy promotion activities.
The committee is also proposing a $725 reduction in the administration's $2.9 billion request for multilateral assistance, which would result in reduced U.S. contributions to a host of international organizations and multilateral financial institutions, including the provision of only half of the requested capital for the multilateral development bank,
As for country-specific funding requests, the bill would seek to cut foreign aid to several countries that do not meet Congress's conditions. For example, according to the committee's press release, the bill would affect foreign aid in the follow ways:
As the world watches the saga of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng unfold in a Beijing hospital, the White House is disputing a Tuesday report that claimed the staff of Vice President Joe Biden overruled the State Department to reject the asylum case of Wang Lijun, the local Chinese official who fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February.
Unlike in the Chen case, when Wang sought refuge with U.S. authorities, he was not a human rights activist fleeing persecution for his advocacy on behalf of China's abused masses. Wang was the police chief of a major Chinese city and a key deputy to provincial boss Bo Xilai. Wang was embroiled in an alleged corruption and murder scandal involving Bo's wife and a British national and was fleeing Bo's wrath. He eventually left the embassy of his own volition, according to the State Department, after which he was scooped up by Beijing authorities and has not been heard from since.
In Washington, some critics accused the Obama administration of rejecting Wang's reported asylum request out of concern it would disrupt the impending visit by Chinese heir apparent Xi Jinping, whom Biden was hosting.
On Tuesday, the Washington Free Beacon, citing unnamed officials, reported that Biden's office overruled State Department and Justice Department officials to dictate that Wang's asylum request should be denied.
"In the end, Antony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser, successfully prevailed over other officials in arguing that Wang's asylum appeal should be rejected," the report stated. "Blinken, according to the officials, feared China would cancel the upcoming visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, whose visit was to be hosted by Biden, unless Wang was sent away from the consulate as soon as possible."
National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable flatly that the story was false and that neither Blinken nor anyone in Biden's office was involved in the Wang case in any way.
"This is complete fiction. No one from the office of the vice president, including specifically Tony, was involved in any way shape or form," Vietor said. "This was a consular matter handled by the State Department."
"I stand by the facts of my story," Free Beacon reporter Bill Gertz told The Cable.
This week, State Department officials also took the lead in the Chen case. State Department counsel Harold Koh, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, and Ambassador Gary Locke led the negotiations with the Chinese that found Chen in a Beijing hospital fearing for his safety and that of his family.
In a Wednesday interview with CNN, Campbell emphasized that the United States adhered to Chen's wishes in negotiating a deal with the Chinese government that allows Chen to reunite with his family and start a new life inside China.
"I think everyone felt that we had served his interests and we'd worked closely with him in a manner that brought his family together that had been torn apart years ago and really had done something that gives him a chance to have a productive life," he said. "It's not going to be easy, but that's what he wanted, and we were very grateful to be able to support him."
But Campbell also acknowledged that there was no guarantee the Chinese government would adhere to the deal and that Chen's safety may be at risk.
"Now, time will tell," he said. "And what we have been able to do is provide the base, but it will be important for the U.S. government, for non-profits, for his many friends, admirers, and supporters to create a support network for him that protects him, that supports him, that encourages him in the way ahead."
The Obama administration said Tuesday it is involved in ongoing consultations with various Taliban officials, but said that a long-negotiated deal to transfer five senior Taliban commanders out of the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay is "on hold" indefinitely.
The U.S. plan for Afghanistan took shape today when President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement to extend the U.S. security commitment in Afghanistan until 2024. The agreement was signed during Obama's surprise one-day visit to Afghanistan, which just happened to fall on the anniversary of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Two senior administration officials briefed reporters today on a conference call from Kabul. Asked by The Cable whether the Obama administration is still negotiating with the Taliban directly and whether the administration sees Taliban participation in the future of Afghanistan, the officials said yes on both counts.
"We continue to remain in contact with various Taliban leaders and we have several indications of intense interest in the reconciliation process," a senior administration official said. "It's quite clear to us that there is a range of interest among Taliban in reconciliation and there's quite a bit of internal political turbulence within the Taliban on that score."
But the official explained that a deal under consideration to transfer five senior Taliban commanders out of Gitmo to "house arrest" in Qatar, in exchange for the release of a Westerner in Taliban custody, was stalled due to internal divisions within the Taliban's ranks.
"For reasons that appear to have to do with internal political turbulence among the Taliban, those efforts have been basically put on hold for the time being," the official said. "The Taliban understand very well what needs to happen in that channel for those talks to restart and we'll see what they do with that knowledge."
Senior U.S. lawmakers in both parties have come out against the proposed transfer of Taliban commanders out of Gitmo, arguing that they were too dangerous to be released and that the Qatari arrangement would not be enough to ensure they did not return to violence. The deal would also have set up a Taliban representative office in Qatar from which the Taliban could operate.
Last month, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told a Washington audience that he also opposes releasing Taliban officials from Gitmo until the Taliban have shown some evidence that they are negotiating in good faith.
The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has expressed some hope that the deal would be a precursor to more positive interactions, although Afghan officials were initially upset that the United States had begun discussions with the Taliban outside their purview.
The Karzai government also has good reason to be suspicious of Taliban peace offers, considering that its most recent peace engagement with the Taliban literally blew up when a supposed Taliban negotiator detonated a suicide bomb that killed the leader of Karzai's peace council, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Former Deputy NATO Senior Civilian Representative at ISAF Mark Jacobson, now with the Truman National Security Project, told The Cable today that the administration's comments represented new openness about its talks with the Taliban.
"I think the White House is increasingly open about U.S. discussions with the Taliban -- an indication to me that we are in a good position to move these talks along," he said. "In the end its going to have to be about Karzai and the Taliban, but both sides feel much more comfortable in direct discussions with us because both sides see us as more reliable than the others. And in the end, any agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government will require the backing and support of the United States."
On the conference call from Kabul, the administration officials rejected assertions that the Obama administration is opening itself up to charges of politicizing bin Laden's killing by signing the agreement on the one-year anniversary of the mission. They said the timing was based on the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago.
"The negotiations were completed in recent weeks... The two presidents set a clear goal for the agreement to be signed before the summit in Chicago," one official said. "It was always the president's intention to spend this anniversary with our troops. What better place to spend that time with our troops here in Afghanistan who are in harm's way."
There is no formal planning going on inside NATO to prepare for defending Turkey from the violence spilling over from Syria, even though Turkey is considering whether to formally invoke NATO's chapters on collective defense, a top Obama administration official said Monday.
"Our Supreme Allied Commander [Adm. James Stavridis] can do a certain amount of planning... but there has been no formal tasking and there has been no formal request by the Turks for consultations in an Article 4 or Article 5 scenario," said Liz Sherwood-Randall, the National Security Council's senior director for Europe, in remarks Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu briefed his foreign minister and defense minister counterparts on Syria at a high level meeting in Brussels this month, and reports said that Davotoglu discussed at length a cross border attack by Syrian forces on a refugee camp inside Turkey that killed two. Davotoglu is also reported to have said the Syrian regime has "abused a chance offered by the Annan plan."
The Obama administration also believes that the Annan plan "is failing," is currently searching for a "plan B" in Syria, and is preparing military related options in case diplomacy breaks down. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that NATO might have to get involved earlier this month, during a ministerial meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group in Paris.
"Turkey already has discussed with NATO, during our ministerial meetings over the last two days, the burden of Syrian refugees on Turkey, the outrageous shelling across the border from Syria into Turkey a week ago, and that Turkey is considering formally invoking Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty," Clinton said.
In a shift of U.S. policy, the White House said Friday that Taiwan does have a legitimate need for new fighter planes to address a growing gap with the Chinese military and pledged to sell Taiwan an "undetermined number" new U.S.-made planes.
The new White House position could spark a new crisis in the U.S.-China relationship on the very same day that blind Chinese Activist Chen Guangcheng is rumored to have fled his house arrest to seek asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner are also slated to visit China May 3 and 4 to hold the fourth round of the U.S. China Economic and Security Dialogue.
The White House policy shift was codified in a letter sent to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) Friday as part of a deal to get the Texas senator to release his hold on the confirmation of Mark Lippert, a close confidant of President Barack Obama whose nomination to become the top Pentagon official for Asia has been held up since October over the issue of selling F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan.
"We are mindful of and share your concerns about Taiwan's growing shortfall in fighter aircraft as the F-5s are retired from service and notwithstanding the upgrade of the F-16A/Bs. We recognize that China has 2,300 operational combat aircraft, while our democratic partner Taiwan has only 490. We are committed to assisting Taiwan in addressing the disparity in numbers of aircraft through our work with Taiwan's defense ministry on its development of a comprehensive defense strategy vis-a-vis China," Robert Nabors, director of the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote in a letter today to Cornyn.
"This work will be a high priority for a new Assistant Secretary of Defense in his dialogue on force transformation with his Taiwan counterparts. The Assistant Secretary, in consultation with the inter-agency and the Congress, will play a lead role as the Administration decides on a near-term course of action on how to address Taiwan's fighter gap, including through the sale to Taiwan of an undetermined number of new U.S.-made fighter aircraft."
The White House does not explicitly promise to sell Taiwan new F-16 fighter jets, as Cornyn wants, promising only to give the matter "serious consideration." But it does pledge an "underdetermined number" of new aircraft and the White House promised that Lippert would use the U.S.-Taiwan Defense Review Talks to conduct a full review of Taiwan's long-term defense strategy.
"Our decisions will continue to be based on an assessment of Taiwan's needs, taking into account what is needed to support Taiwan's overall defense strategy vis-a-vis China," the letter stated.
Cornyn praised the letter in a statement.
the Administration for recognizing that our friend and ally Taiwan's air force
is woefully undersized and outgunned by Communist China, and their inability to
adequately defend themselves poses a threat not just to their own security, but
to that of the United States," he said. "I look forward to
continuing to work
F-16 fighter planes are largely manufactured in Cornyn's home state of Texas and assembled by Lockheed Martin of Fort Worth.
Arms sales to Taiwan, especially offensive arms like F-16s, are a major irritant in the U.S.-China relationship, as China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and a core interest. The United States has maintained a balance between arming Taiwan and trying to avoid friction with China over the issue since the Taiwan Relations Act was signed in 1979.
Last October, the Obama administration decided to sell Taiwan upgrade packages for its aging fleet of F-16 A/B model planes but the administration never said whether it would sell Taiwan the newer, more advanced planes, claiming it was still under consideration.
At Lippert's November confirmation hearing, Cornyn pressed the nominee on the issue (watch the video here) and then introduced an amendment to the defense authorization bill that sought to force the administration to sell Taiwan new F-16s. That amendment was voted down in the Senate.
Cornyn then wrote a letter threatening to hold the Lippert nomination unless he gets some satisfaction on the issue.
"I remain disappointed by your de facto denial of Taiwan's request to purchase 66 new F-16 C/D fighter aircraft, and I believe it sends a damaging message to nations in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond that the U.S. is willing to abandon our friends in the face of Communist China's intimidation tactics," Cornyn wrote.
In the administration's Feb. 16 response to Cornyn, acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller wrote, "We believe the F-16 A/B upgrade effectively meets Taiwan's current needs." Today's letter changes that analysis.
The Lippert hold is not the first time Cornyn has used his power to hold nominees to press for selling F-16s to Taiwan. Last July, Cornyn held up the nomination of Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to make a decision on selling the fighter plane to Taiwan.
Lippert's nomination had also been stalled by an objection by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who wanted details on Lippert's reported feud with former National Security Advisor Jim Jones. Lippert was confirmed by the Senate late Thursday evening.
UPDATE: National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor sent the The Cable the following statement on the sale:
The letter to Senator Cornyn is consistent with our current policy on Taiwan, which has not changed. We take very seriously our commitment to Taiwan’s defense as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act. Our commitment is reflected in our sales of $12.5 billion in arms to Taiwan in 2010 and 2011. In particular, these sales have made a significant contribution to Taiwan’s air defense capabilities including by upgrading the backbone capability of Taiwan’s air force. We do not comment on future possible foreign military sales unless formal congressional notification has taken place. We remain committed to our one China policy based on the Three Joint Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act. The new ASD Mark Lippert will play a central role in working with Taiwan's defen.se ministry on its development of a comprehensive defense strategy and a resourcing plan.
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
The Republican Party appears to be deeply split on whether the United States should call on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, a Senate committee vote revealed today.
The divisions were on display during a one-hour debate Thursday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), after which the Republican members of the panel remained irreconcilably divided over how aggressively the United States should work for Assad's removal.
Thursday's markup of a resolution condemning the violence in Syria, put forth by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Casey (D-PA), was the first real congressional debate over U.S. policy in Syria since protests broke out there more than a year ago. It was a heated debate, and by the time the dust settled, half of the Republicans on the committee joined with the Democrats to insist that Congress call on Assad to step down, overruling the other half of the Republicans on the panel, who argued that such language should be scuttled from the resolution.
Rubio, in a speech Wednesday at the Brookings Institution aimed at burnishing his foreign-policy credentials, explained that he was fighting against a growing isolationist trend in his own party. "I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left," he said.
Little did he know that his next battle with members of his own party on foreign policy would come only a day later.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) opened up Thursday's SFRC business meeting by warning of the dangers of Assad remaining in power.
"The stakes in Syria are very, very high. The prospects of a full-fledged civil war are very real," Kerry said, explaining that he will travel to the region during the next Senate recess, which begins tomorrow. "If Assad were to remain in power ... it would really mark a turning point in this Arab awakening and we would have a lot of difficulties dealing with that for a long time to come."
But as soon as Kerry started considering the Rubio-Casey resolution as introduced, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) objected to the paragraph that "calls upon the President to continue to provide support, including communications equipment to organizations in Syria that are representative of the people of Syria."
Corker wanted to make sure that Congress wasn't endorsing arms sales to the Syrian opposition, so the committee agreed to add the words "non-lethal" before "support." Corker also tried to make the resolution specify that no money would go to the opposition, but that was voted down by all nine committee Democrats and three of the nine committee Republicans: Rubio, Johnny Isaakson (R-GA), and John Barrasso (R-WY).
The real fireworks came when Corker tried to remove the line saying that the Senate "reaffirms that it is the policy of the United States that the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people cannot be realized so long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power and that he must step aside."
"I think it's odd to state as a national policy that we want to see Assad gone," Corker said.
Kerry pointed out that President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have all called publicly for Assad to go, so it already is national policy and the Senate would simply be endorsing that. Kerry offered to take out the phrase "he must step aside."
Ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) objected even to that. "I still feel that we should not include a reference to Assad in the paragraph," he said.
"For us to get into a situation where are making these sorts of judgments seems to be overstepping without really having a fundamental debate," said Lugar "We crept on this before during the Libya situation... and we've never really had a debate. The personalization of this resolution is not a good idea."
Rubio defended his resolution, stating he agreed with the administration. He was backed up by several Democrats, including Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
Durbin said that if the Senate passed a resolution weaker than the administration's position, the signal to the world would be that the United States is backing down. "Wouldn't this give some solace to Assad that he might be able to survive and continue?" he asked.
"Many thousands of people have been killed in Russia and China and even in Burma," Lugar responded. "The president could say [Russian President-elect Vladimir] Putin must go, or Chinese leaders, because they are committing crimes in Lhasa all the time. But we are not affirming that... This is a shift in making foreign policy that I am very uncomfortable with."
Kerry tried his best several times to find compromise language that would satisfy both sides, suggesting that the resolution call for a democratic transition decided by the Syrian people -- with the obvious implication that Syria's future would not include Assad.
"It's conceivable that diplomacy might create some transition process." Kerry said, referring to the gradual handover of power by President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. "Who knows?"
Menendez was having none of that argument.
"To somehow leave in vagueness that Assad, despite his slaughter, can somehow find a way to survive, is very difficult to accept," Menendez said. "Otherwise, it undermines the purpose and the power of these resolutions and sends the wrong message to the people struggling and dying."
Ultimately, Kerry gave up and called the vote and the committee voted 12-6 to keep the call for Assad to go in the resolution. Rubio, Isaakson, and Barrasso again joined the Democrats in the vote to scuttle Corker's amendment.
In the final vote to approve the resolution, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) voted in favor by proxy, making the final vote 13-6. Four Republicans voted for the resolution, five against. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) broke ranks with the Democrats and voted against the resolution by proxy.
"The committee is split on Syria but I think you'll find a different result when we get to the floor," Rubio told The Cable in a short interview. "I think there will be much more support for it from Republicans than the committee's vote reflected."
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
The Defense Department's new espionage unit is so secret, even the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee weren't told about it.
The Washington Post reported April 23 that the Pentagon has created something called the Defense Clandestine Service, an effort that will reassign hundreds of defense intelligence personnel to focus on gathering information in countries, such as Iran, that are outside the current warzones in Afghanistan and Iraq. The new initiative was reported to be the brainchild of Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers.
A "senior defense official" gave the story to the Post, but nobody in the Pentagon told Senate Armed Services Committee heads Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), who complained loudly about being left out of the loop at Thursday morning's committee hearing.
In a short interview with The Cable after the hearing, McCain said this was only the latest example in an ongoing trend of the Pentagon failing to properly keep Congress informed about its activities.
"I had to read about it in the Washington Post. There's not greater example of the cavalier way that the Pentagon treats the Senate Armed Services Committee," McCain said.
In his own short interview with The Cable, Levin said he would hold a hearing on the issue as soon as the Senate returns from its upcoming recess, which begins tomorrow.
"I think they were lax in their noticing it to the Senate and in general I share McCain's belief that they have not adequately notified the Senate on a number of things nor responded in a number of ways to the requirements in law," he said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.