The Senate was all set to consider next year's funding bill for the State Department and foreign operations today, but ended up punting on the bill due to a dispute over Cuba policy and a failure to agree on procedure.
Congress has been rushing to complete work on all the appropriations bills for fiscal year 2012, which started almost two months ago, on Oct. 1. The Senate Democratic leadership's strategy was to move the bills in chunks of three at a time, smaller versions of omnibus bills affectionately known as "minibuses." The State Department and foreign ops appropriations bill was part of a minibus that was supposed to be debated beginning today on the Senate floor. But now that minibus has crashed, and Senate consideration of State Department funding has been postponed indefinitely.
Here's what happened. As The Cable reported on Monday, two senators were refusing to give unanimous consent to debate the State Department minibus, which also included the energy and water appropriations and financial services appropriations bills, because of provisions in the financial services bill that would loosen restrictions on U.S. banks doing business in Cuba.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) don't want any restrictions loosened on doing business with Cuba. They both spoke on the floor today against the Cuba provisions, along with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). But Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) spoke in favor of the Cuba provisions, which he had authored, because his state would benefit from the agricultural trade that loosening restrictions would bring.
So even though none of these senators objected to any aspect in the State Department budget, it was caught in the crossfire because it was tied up as part of the "minibus." With Rubio, Menendez, and Nelson objecting to bringing up the minibus with the Cuba language and Moran and Vitter objecting to bringing it up without the language, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) realized he couldn't get unanimous consent for either version of the bill and pulled it from the floor.
Of course, Reid could just call for a cloture vote on whichever version of the bill he prefers, but that would require time Reid doesn't have. With time running out on the continuing resolution (CR) that is temporarily funding the government until Nov. 18, Reid can't afford to spend floor time on individual bills, amendments, or debate.
Requesting a cloture vote would also have opened up the bill to other amendments, unless there was an agreement to limit amendments, which there wasn't. That is actually how the Senate is supposed to work -- but hasn't, for quite a long time.
"This is a result of a dysfunctional appropriations process," one senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable late on Tuesday. "If you are considering appropriations bills in regular order there wouldn't be a problem, but regular order broke down long ago in the Senate and what we saw today was a direct result of utter disregard for regular order and sheer incompetence in running the Senate."
The Senate did actually use the regular procedure to pass the military construction and veteran appropriations bill earlier this year, so there is precedent.
What happens now? Well, the Senate definitely needs to pass a new short-term CR by Friday, which will probably be combined with a different minibus that has already passed the House, the Senate, and has emerged from a House-Senate conference. That minibus is made up of the Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science and Transportation-HUD appropriations bill.
After that, the Senate will move to the defense authorization bill, a policy bill that recommends -- but does not set -- funding levels. The process for that bill is also a mess, because the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) had to rewrite it at the last minute to cut about $20 billion to match the figure reached by Senate defense appropriators. SASC also had to change language on detainee policies to assuage the administration.
"I gave my word that we're going to do the defense authorization bill," Reid said on the floor late on Tuesday. "It hasn't been worked out to satisfaction of everyone, but there comes a time when we have to stop negotiating and move to the legislation, and we're going to do that following our finishing the next minibus we have."
But the failure to pass a bill tonight could mean that State Department funding will be put off for months. The debate over the defense authorization bill could take one or two full weeks of floor time, at which point the Senate will probably have to pass another CR to fund the government past the New Year. That CR could also result in a nasty fight. Also, Congress will have to grapple with the supercommittee's actions around that time, for instance working on legislation to undo the "trigger" that would cut $600 billion from defense if the supercommittee fails to strike a deal.
All of this means that there won't be floor time for things like the State Department funding bill until next January, at the earliest.
"If Senate Dem leaders do want to make defense authorization a priority, that's going to take up most of December, and then we have to deal with the supercommittee, sequestration, another CR ... and we're looking at the very serious possibility of another CR fight around Christmas. That is the most likely scenario," the GOP Senate aide said. "But then again it is the Senate, so everything could change again tomorrow."
Certain GOP presidential candidates, such as Herman Cain, need to "step up their game" and prove that they know enough about foreign policy to be president, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Cable.
"There are individual candidates that need to step up their game," Graham said on Tuesday, when asked about Cain's cringe-worthy interview on Monday with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Libya.
"Each candidate has to demonstrate for the public that they're ready for the job. And no one expects a person who hasn't been commander-in-chief before to know everything about every topic, but Libya? I think it's fair to ask our candidates to articulate a position," Graham said. "Cain has got to convince people that he's got the depth of knowledge [to be president]."
Graham compared Cain's mission to that of candidate Barack Obama in 2007, when people doubted Obama's foreign policy bona fides. In that case, Obama managed to convince the electorate that he had enough foreign-policy knowledge to handle the issues.
Graham, who just wrote a big National Review article on Obama's foreign policy, also said that felt good about the Nov. 12 CBS/National Journal GOP debate on foreign policy, because all of the leading contenders unified around a basically hawkish agenda and didn't succumb to the wing of the GOP that is advocating for more isolationist policies.
"Six months ago, I was worried about this unpopularity of Iraq and Afghanistan changing the party's historical position of shaping the world," Graham said. "After Saturday's debate I feel more reassured that we're going back to the party of Reagan."
"[Jon] Huntsman and Ron Paul have a legitimate view, but it's not the mainstream view of the Republican Party," Graham said. "The national security debate was well received by many [in the GOP]. It was a hawkish debate."
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has delayed consideration of Michael McFaul to become the next U.S. ambassador to Russia due to objections by U.S. senators that aren't related to his personal qualifications for the position.
Two Senate sources confirmed to The Cable that the committee decided Monday not to consider the nomination of McFaul, the current National Security Council senior director for Russia, at today's committee business meeting as had been planned. In fact, early Tuesday afternoon the entire meeting was cancelled due to the McFaul objection as well as separate objections on the nominations of Roberta Jacobson to become assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Mari Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador. A planned resolution giving the sense of the Senate on Libya also faced criticism, our two Senate sources said.
"Today's business meeting has been postponed due to last-minute requests to holdover several of the agenda items," SFRC spokeswoman Jennifer Berlin told The Cable.
For McFaul, two staffers have confirmed that the objection is coming from Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). Corker isn't objecting to McFaul's personal qualifications for the position, but is using the nomination to press for administration assurances that the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee will be fully funded for fiscal year 2012. Corker also wants assurances over funding for nuclear warhead life-extension programs, which were part of the deal the administration struck with Congress during the debate over the New START nuclear reductions agreement with Russia.
Other GOP senators want to use the McFaul nomination to press the administration on a host of issues, including the current U.S.-Russia talks over missile defense cooperation, Russia's poor record on human rights, its continued occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and a perceived lack of Russian cooperation on key international issues, such as confronting the Iranian nuclear threat.
"Objections have been raised by enough Republicans to warrant holding [McFaul] over until the next business meeting. Likely, strong concerns over administration negotiations with Moscow over missile defense play a large role in taking him off the business meeting agenda," one Senate Republican committee staffer said. "It may be the case Mr. McFaul is not confirmed, given the weight of these concerns."
Another staffer for a committee member said today that further objections to McFaul's nomination would probably come during floor consideration, because they would be raised by Republicans not on the committee. The objections have little to do with McFaul himself, who is generally liked and well-respected by the GOP, in part due to his decades of activism on democracy and human rights.
"He's about as good of a nominee as Republicans can expect from this administration, but there is a huge gap between the administration and the GOP about how the ‘reset' with Russia is going," said this staffer. "Republicans will use his nomination to air their concerns about a range of issues. That's just how it is."
The committee will likely have only one more business meeting this year, and it is unclear whether the administration will get McFaul a hearing on the next agenda.
Meanwhile, the State Department, aware of the potential problems with the McFaul nomination, sent around a fact sheet yesterday to Senate offices, which was obtained by The Cable, seeking to assuage senators' concerns about U.S.-Russia missile defense cooperation discussions. One GOP Senate aide reacted to the fact sheet by telling The Cable, "If the administration thinks this is what constitutes giving Congress access to information about the negotiations, they are sorely mistaken."
Some GOP offices also wanted Kerry to add a bill to penalize Russia for its treatment of human rights lawyers and activists to today's business meeting agenda. The legislation, called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, is named after the anti-corruption lawyer who was tortured and died in a Russian prison in 2009. The bill targets his captors, as well as any other Russian officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights."
Republicans want passage of the Magnitsky bill to be the cost of repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which currently prevents Russia from getting Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status. Without PNTR, U.S. businesses will be disadvantaged when Russia joins the WTO later this year. The administration is avoiding linking Magnitsky to this trade status, and is proposing a fund to support a new democracy and human rights foundation in Russia instead. Republicans are cool on that idea.
Meanwhile, we've confirmed that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is objecting to the Jacobson nomination, and we're told that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is holding up the Aponte nomination.
For years, Iraq hearings on Capitol Hill were marked by the often disruptive presence of the anti-war group Code Pink; now their presence at hearings has been replaced by an Iranian dissident group.
About 50 supporters of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) took over the first three rows of the audience at Tuesday morning's hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the Senate Hart Office Building. The hearing was to examine President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year, and featured testimony by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Unlike the Code Pink representatives, who were famous for disrupting Senate hearings, the MEK supporters at the Hart building today sat politely in their bright yellow sweatshirts and ponchos, which had slogans printed on them calling for the State Department to take the MEK off of their list of foreign terrorist organizations -- a move that is supposedly under consideration.
We overheard one staffer at the hearing quip, "When your critics allege you are a cult, you probably shouldn't dress like one."
The MEK, whose ideology fuses Islam and Marxism, was formed in Iran in 1965. It allied itself with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and fought against the Shah and his Western backers during the Iranian Revolution. After falling out of favor with Khomeini, the group was given shelter in Iraq by Saddam Hussein, who used them to conduct brutal cross-border raids during the Iraq-Iran war.
After the fall of Saddam, the United States helped broker an agreement whereby 3,400 MEK members were confined to a complex in northeast Iraq called Camp Ashraf, protected by the U.S. military. The camp was handed over to the Iraqi government in 2009. In an interview this summer with The Cable, Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Samir Sumaida'ie said that the MEK was dangerous and "nothing more than a cult."
Since 2009, the MEK has conducted a multi-million advocacy and lobbying campaign in Washington, with the help of dozens of senior U.S. officials and lawmakers, many of whom have been paid for their involvement. The list includes Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former CIA Deputy Director of Clandestine Operations John Sano, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, Gen. Anthony Zinni, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, former Sen. Evan Bayh, and many others.
In an August rally outside the State Department, Kennedy declared, "One of the greatest moments was when my uncle, President [John F.] Kennedy, stood in Berlin and uttered the immortal words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,'" Kennedy exclaimed. "Today, I'm honored to repeat my uncle's words, by saying [translated from Farsi] ‘I am an Iranian, I am an Ashrafi.'"
Kennedy admitted he was paid $25,000 to emcee the rally.
Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-MI) called on the administration to protect the MEK from Iraqi government violence in his opening statement at the hearing.
"The status of the residents at Camp Ashraf from the Iranian dissident group MEK remains unresolved," Levin said. "As the December 2011 deadline approaches, the administration needs to remain vigilant that the Government of Iraq lives up to its commitments to provide for the safety of the Camp Ashraf residents until a resolution of their status can be reached."
"We need to make it clear to the Government of Iraq that there cannot be a repeat of the deadly confrontation begun last April by Iraqi security forces against Camp Ashraf residents," Levin said.
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave a full-throated defense Tuesday of the Obama administration's decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq by year's end, claiming Iraq is ready to defend itself.
"I believe Iraq is ready to handle security without a significant U.S. military footprint," Panetta testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to prepared remarks obtained by The Cable.
Panetta emphasized that the Obama administration was committed to fulfilling the terms of the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by President George W. Bush's administration, and he said that low levels of violence in Iraq showed Iraq's readiness to maintain its own security without a significant U.S. presence.
"As the Iraqis have assumed security control, the level of violence has decreased significantly and stayed at historic lows," Panetta testified. "To be sure, Iraq faces a host of remaining challenges, but I believe Iraq is equipped to deal with them.
Panetta did acknowledge that Iraq will still have to contend with periodic attacks by al Qaeda, internal political divisions, challenges in securing its own borders, and the threat of Iranian meddling. But he downplayed Iran's ability to influence Iraq's future.
"And while we have only strengthened our regional security relationships in recent years, Iran's destabilizing activities have only further isolated the regime," Panetta said. "So as we mark a new phase in our enduring partnership with Iraq, Iran is more likely than ever to be marginalized in the region and in its ability to influence the Iraqi political process."
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testified that the United States and Iraq will have a "normal" military-to-military relationship following the exit of U.S. troops, which will be managed by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad's Office of Security Cooperation.
"This departure does not mark the end of our military-to-military relationship with Iraq, but rather the transition toward a normal one," Dempsey said, according to prepared remarks. "It will make our diplomats the face of the United States in Iraq. It will clearly signal the full assumption of security responsibilities by the forces, the leaders, and the people of Iraq. It creates an opportunity that is theirs to seize."
Several senators on the panel have been critical of the Obama administration's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by year's end, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). They are sure to press Panetta and Dempsey to provide details about the negotiations conducted over the summer to extend the U.S. troops presence in Iraq and why they didn't succeed.
The White House has maintained that withdrawing all troops from Iraq was a "core principle" of its policy, and that the administration never advocated for a troop extension but rather was open to an Iraqi request for one, which never materialized.
But Panetta seemed to support a troop extension several times in public statements. In July, Panetta urged Iraqi leaders to, "Dammit, make a decision" about the U.S. troop extension. In August, he told reporters that, "My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes.'" On Oct. 17, he was still pushing for the extension and said, "At the present time I'm not discouraged because we're still in negotiations with the Iraqis."
The second panel to appear before the committee will include Brett McGurk, the man who negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement in 2008 and who was brought back by the Obama administration to negotiate the possible extension this year.
The senators will press McGurk to give details about whether the administration actually proposed an Iraq troop extension. They will also seek to have McGurk admit that in 2008, there was an expectation that U.S. troops would be extended to stay in Iraq past 2011, as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Cable earlier this month.
McCain and Graham are also likely to press Panetta and Dempsey on the negative effects that would befall the military if the super committee fails to strike a deal by Nov. 23, triggering a "sequestration" mechanism that would automatically cut $600 billion from the defense budget over the next ten years.
Panetta wrote to McCain and Graham on Monday to warn them that, if the defense trigger is pulled, the military would have to furlough workers, delay major weapons programs, and cut training. "The severe disruption in the base budget would have adverse effect on our ability to support the Afghan war," Panetta said, adding that such a move would "undermine our ability to meet our national security objectives and require a significant revision to our defense strategy. "
The Senate is almost set to consider a three-bill spending package that includes all the funding for the State Department and foreign operations, but two senators are refusing to go along because of language related to Cuba.
The Senate was stalled on Monday evening as senators started debate on the energy and water appropriations bill, which Senate Democratic leaders want to combine with the State and foreign ops and financial services appropriations bills into a miniature omnibus measure that's affectionately known on the Hill as a "minibus." By packaging three bills together, the Senate hopes to be able to get more work done faster. However, two senators won't let that happen until their concerns about language allowing U.S. banks to do business in Cuba are addressed.
"There is concern among a group of senators on both sides of the aisle with longstanding concerns for human rights and democracy in Cuba with regard to the loosening of restrictions on Cuba in the financial services bill," a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable Monday afternoon. "If that language was taken out, those senators would drop their objection to bringing up foreign ops for consideration."
Procedurally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has already brought up the energy and water appropriations bill and wants to add the other two bills (state/foreign ops and financial services) as an amendment. But Reid needs unanimous consent in order to do that without a lengthy cloture process, and we're told by Senate sources that Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) are objecting.
"Senator Rubio is objecting to a provision in the bill that would allow Cuba to become the only country on the State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list with a general exception for access to U.S.-based financial institutions," Rubio's spokesman Alex Conant told The Cable. "Under Cuban law, the Castro regime has a monopoly on all banking, commerce and trade, so this amendment would allow Cuba's totalitarian regime to directly open corresponding accounts in U.S.-based financial institutions, and vice versa."
The senators don't have any problem with the State and foreign ops section of the minibus, but Reid's attempt at adding both bills as one amendment has embroiled them in the dispute.
We're told by Senate sources that Reid plans to bring up the amendment containing both the State and foreign ops and financial services bills anyway and call for a unanimous consent vote, forcing any senators who object to show their cards. When the objections are made, Reid will be ready with a new amendment that doesn't contain the disputed Cuba provisions, which is likely to achieve unanimous consent.
After all this plays out, the real debate over the State and foreign ops appropriations bill can begin. When that happens, which will probably be late Monday evening or early Tuesday, senators will begin offering a host of amendments to the State and foreign ops bill.
Sen. Orin Hatch (R-UT) has introduced an amendment that would reinstate a ban on U.S. funding for foreign organizations that even discuss abortion. The amendment's language is a version of what has been known since 1984 as the Mexico City policy, named for the city where President Ronald Reagan first announced it. It's been a partisan ping-pong issue ever since: President Bill Clinton rescinded the policy in 1993, President George W. Bush reinstated it in 2001, and President Barack Obama rescinded it again in 2009. Republicans have since been trying to restore the policy under the Obama administration.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) introduced an amendment that would bar any funding for the administration to negotiate a United Nations arms trade treaty if it "restricts the Second Amendment rights of United States citizens."
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is expected to introduce an amendment to mandate sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran in response to the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and in light of a new International Atomic Energy Agency report, which states that Iran has made significant progress toward constructing a nuclear weapon.
And Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) introduced an amendment late on Monday that would prevent the president from trying to get around a law barring U.S. funding for UNESCO. The United States automatically cut off contributions to UNESCO this month when the organization overwhelmingly voted to admit Palestine as a member.
"Despite our legal obligation to suspend funding ... there have been some discussions, some speculation, that it may be possible to find alternative ways to financially support U.N. agencies like UNESCO that have taken this step of admitting the Palestinians as a member," Coats said on the Senate floor late Monday.
"That would be a total mistake and I want to reiterate the fact that it would be a violation of the law. And so, therefore, I come to the floor today to introduce a bill that serves as an emphatic statement, restatement of that."
Several more amendments are expected on Tuesday in what should be a lively debate over foreign affairs funding, if and when the Senate gets around to it. Of course, the Senate action is just a precursor to the House-Senate conference over the bill, where all the final decisions are made behind closed doors.
The State Department is still trying to convince Congress to restore funding for UNESCO, which was cut off after the U.N. cultural agency's members granted full membership to the Palestinians -- but there is little chance lawmakers will change the provision preventing U.S. funding.
State sent an unofficial memo to key congressional offices today titled, "How the Loss of U.S. Funding Will Impact Important Programs at UNESCO." The memo, which was passed to The Cable by a congressional source, argues that UNESCO programs will have to be cut back severely due to the loss of U.S. funding.
State Department spokespeople have said they are working with Congress in the hopes of amending the laws that cut off U.S. funds to any U.N. organization that admits Palestine as a full member, but there is broad bipartisan support for the funding cut-offs and no real congressional effort to change the law.
"The cut-off in U.S. funding may not directly affect extra-budgetary programs funded by other donors, but it will weaken UNESCO's presence in the field and undermine its ability to take on and manage such projects and programs," the memo stated (emphasis theirs).
UNESCO will lose $240 million of funding for fiscal years 2011, 2012, and 2013 -- roughly 22 percent of its budget -- and will have to scale down programs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, and South Sudan, the memo states.
The memo also lists several ways that UNESCO supports U.S. national security interests. These include "sustain[ing] the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring" and democratic values around the world, promoting nation-building in South Sudan, and encouraging Holocaust education in the Middle East and Africa.
Read the full memo after the jump:
Congressional Democrats on the budget-cutting "supercommittee" want to count $1 trillion that the United States will not spend fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next 10 years as "savings," even though there was never a plan to extend the wars that long in the first place.
House Assistant Democratic leader and supercommittee member James Clyburn (D-SC) mentioned this plan on Fox News Sunday, describing it as part of the supercommittee's efforts to agree on $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending cuts over 10 years before its Nov. 23 deadline. Republicans have supported this idea in the past but as of yet, not within the context of the supercommittee's deliberations.
"We believe and the CBO believes that there is around $917 billion to be saved over the next 10 years from the overseas contingency account. And we ought to count that," Clyburn said.
The problem with Clyburn's idea is that the money he is referring to -- emergency spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- was never budgeted to remain at current levels over the next ten years. The money can only be counted as "savings" when compared to CBO projections from last March, which were based on a mathematical formula -- not the actual future costs of the wars.
However, it never has been anybody's plan to maintain current troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next 10 years, so the "savings" are completely illusory.
The White House used this gimmick in September, when it released its $4.4 trillion plan to cut the deficit. The gimmick was also used by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in the plan he released last July to avert a debt-ceiling crisis. Paul Ryan's budget last April also included this savings in its deficit reduction calculation, which was supported by 235 House Republicans and 40 Senate Republicans.
Clyburn also said the supercommittee Democrats are interested in spending the war "savings."
"We ought to use that savings to plow it back in to fix Social Security, that will allow it to be sovereign for another 75 years, to plow it into job creation programs that would get people back to work, and paying taxes, and off of food stamps and off of unemployment," he said.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- which have cost more than $1 trillion since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service -- were completely funded by off-budget borrowing and classified as "emergency spending," meaning that eliminating those costs does not actually return any money to the Treasury.
"Isn't that a classic Washington budget gimmick, to count savings on money that wasn't going to be spent anyway?" asked Fox host Chris Wallace.
Clyburn responded that these savings were more realistic than counting future economic growth as revenue, which is part of the Republican approach inside the supercommittee.
"It sounds to me like you guys have a lot of work to do in 10 days," Wallace said.
Two top Senate GOP defense hawks laid out for The Cable how they plan to save the defense budget -- if the congressional "supercommittee" fails to reach an agreement, triggering $600 billion in defense cuts over ten years.
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are part of a larger effort to protect the defense budget from the "sequestration" mechanism, which would automatically be activated if the supercommittee fails to agree by Thanksgiving on $1.2 trillion of discretionary spending cuts over 10 years. They sent a letter last week to the Pentagon asking for a detailed analysis of the consequences for the military if the trigger is pulled.
"The secretary of defense and all the service chiefs say that it would do irreparable damage to our national security, so obviously we need to do something about it," McCain told The Cable on Tuesday. "My intent is that sequestration on national defense will not take place."
McCain said he would introduce and support a law to undo the Budget Control Act of 2011, which codified the deal to raise the debt ceiling.
"We'll do everything we can to prevent [the trigger] being implemented," McCain said. "You can't bind future Congresses."
The threat of large defense cuts, along with a parallel trigger that would cut entitlements, was intended to be so objectionable that the supercommittee would have an incentive to make a deal. When asked, McCain rejected the idea that by undermining the trigger, he and Graham are taking pressure off the supercommittee to make the required bipartisan cuts.
"There is sufficient pressure on the supercommittee, they will not be swayed either way by our concern about sequestration of national defense," McCain said.
Graham went into more detail about what hawks will seek as a replacement for the defense trigger.
"I hope the supercommittee can do its job, but we can't just live on hope around here. So if they fail, what do we do?" Graham said. "If the committee fails, I am not going to allow the triggers to be pulled that would shoot the Defense Department in the head."
Graham said he would put forth a substitute to the triggers, "something where the whole country shares in the failure of the supercommittee, not just the Defense Department and Medicare providers."
A scrum of reporters cornered supercommittee member Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) coming out of the Tuesday Democratic caucus lunch, and your humble Cable guy elbowed his way to the front of the pack. We decided to first ask several questions about the IAEA report on Iran, to the chagrin of the other reporters desperate for supercommittee quotes.
When Kerry did turn to answering questions about the supercommittee, he said, "We've got some distance to travel and we're working very hard to do that."
Kerry said he was not "optimistic," but he was "hopeful," the super ommittee would succeed.
"Everybody's working in ... uh ... good faith," he said, with a wry grin on his face.
The Obama administration reacted cautiously to today's International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran's nuclear weapons program and declined to say how exactly how they would respond. But across Washington, suggestions for tightening the noose on the Iranian regime were abundant.
"I'm definitely going to tell you we need time to study it," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Tuesday following the release of the IAEA report, which alleges that Iran had until 2003 an intricate and extensive program to design and build a nuclear warhead to fit atop a Shabaab-3 missile. The report also stated that Iran worked on components for such a warhead, prepared for nuclear tests, and maintained aspects of the program well past 2003 -- activities that may still be ongoing today.
"I think you know the process here: that after a report like this comes out, we also have a scheduled meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors coming up on November 18th, so Iran will be an agenda item at that meeting. So we will take the time between now and then to study this," Nuland said.
In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon, two senior administration officials predicted that the Obama administration would increase sanctions on Iran in light of the report but declined to offer any specifics on what they might be.
That explanation wasn't well received by lawmakers in both parties on Tuesday, who offered plenty of specific ideas on how to ramp up pressure on Tehran and have no intention of waiting for the administration to "study" the IAEA's findings.
The Cable spoke on Tuesday with Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Mark Kirk (R-IL), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) about the report.
"It's of enormous concern to everybody and a lot of conversations are taking place right now about how to respond," Kerry told The Cable. "It clearly means we have to ratchet up on Iran, probably tougher sanctions and other things."
Kerry declined to endorse one big idea floating around town, namely to take actions that would collapse the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and ruin the country's currency, bringing the Iranian economy to its knees.
"There are a lot of options, you want to pick them carefully and you want to be thoughtful about what's going to be effective," Kerry said.
Kirk, who co-authored a letter in August with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) calling for collapsing the CBI, and which was signed by 92 senators, tweeted today that the White House's reaction to the report Tuesday constituted "national security malpractice."
Kirk met with White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley on Monday night to give him the "hard sell" on the idea of collapsing the CBI, he told The Cable. Kirk said that the concept under consideration is to give friendly countries that are dependent on Iranian oil -- such as Japan, South Korea, and Turkey -- a time window to shift their purchases from Iran to Saudi Arabia.
Kirk and Schumer are planning to introduce a bill soon that would be a Senate companion to an amendment by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) to require the president to determine within 30 days the CBI's role in Iran's illicit activities. If the president determines that the CBI is complicit, the bill would require the administration to cut off any foreign banks doing business with the CBI from participating in the U.S. financial system.
The main risk in collapsing the CBI is that it could bring down the Iranian oil industry along with it, risking a cascading effect on world energy markets that would exacerbate the global economic crisis.
McCain told The Cable today that it's a risk he is willing to take. "Libya is cranking up their oil exports. There's always risk, but there's a greater risk when you know that they're about to become nuclear weaponized," he said.
"The first thing we should do is talk to the Russians and the Chinese and tell them to get with it and pass the increased sanctions through the U.N.," McCain said, adding that the Obama has leverage against Russian and China if it chooses to use it. "Russia wants in the WTO, China wants a lot of things. There should be consequences for their failure to act."
Graham agreed that the negative impact of collapsing the CBI was a necessary cost of ramping up pressure on Iran.
"We've got make a decision: What's the biggest threat to the world, a nuclear-armed Iran or sanctions that would hurt us and the people of Iran?" Graham told The Cable. "You've got two choices, the policy of containment or the policy of preemption. I'm in the preemption camp. I don't think containment works. The only way to stop this is to prevent this and that means changing behavior."
Graham said existing sanctions don't seem to be working, which means that the sanctions regime has to be fundamentally changed. "If that doesn't work, the other option is military force." But Graham cautioned that if there were to be a military strike on Iran, it would have to include a massive assault on Iran's counterattacking capabilities.
"You'd have to destroy their air force, sink their navy, and deal with their long-range missile threat. So you'd have to go in big," he said. "If you attack Iran you open Pandora's box. If you allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, you empty Pandora's box. So these are not good choices."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) said in a statement that the threat of military force must be credible and he called for Congress to pass a new Iran sanctions bill, one that the administration previously said was unnecessary.
The House and Senate have each unveiled a version of the bill that would tighten existing sanctions, compel the administration to enforce penalties already on the books, and levy a host of new restrictions against members of Iran's regime and companies that aid Iran's energy, banking, and arms sectors. The bills are a follow-up to the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act (CISADA) that Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed in July 2010.
Former Treasury Department official Matthew Levitt, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Cable that there's no consensus yet inside the administration or around the world that collapsing the CBI would be possible without doing severe damage to the world economy.
But Levitt offered several things the administration can do immediately to ramp up pressure on Iran, including pressuring countries to scale back Iranian diplomatic presence in their capitals, restricting the travel of Iranian officials around the world, and setting up a multilateral customs body to enforce sanctions against Iran, modeled after what was done in wake of the Kosovo crisis.
"The administration is not being creative enough with the tools they have," Levitt said. In the coming days, he predicted, "You are going to see scrambling as to what can be done."
A group of House lawmakers is making the case for continuing U.S. support to the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite the Palestinian bid to seek full membership in the United Nations.
"Maintaining U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority is in the essential strategic interest of Israel and the United States," wrote 44 lawmakers, all Democrats, in a letter today to House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee heads Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY). The letter was spearheaded by Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Peter Welch (D-VT).
Ever since the Palestinians began their statehood drive this summer, Congress has been attacking the $550 million of annual aid given to the PA by U.S. taxpayers. For fiscal 2011, Congress had already provided the Palestinians with about $150 million in direct budget support -- also known as cash -- but $200 million in security funding and about $200 million in humanitarian funding has been held up.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL ) released her hold on the security funding last week, but she and Granger are still holding up the non-security funding. Also, Congress is set to consider whether to allocate a whole new tranche of aid to the PA as part of the upcoming negotiations over the fiscal 2012 State and foreign ops spending bill. That bill could come up in the Senate this week or next, leading to a House-Senate conference behind closed doors to iron out a final compromise bill.
"We understand the developments that have led some to call for a suspension or termination of aid to the PA," the 44 lawmakers wrote. "However, these legitimate concerns must be weighed against the essential role that U.S. assistance to the PA plays in providing security and stability for Palestinians and Israelis as well as critical humanitarian relief to the Palestinian people - and the potential consequences if this assistance is terminated."
Currently, the House version of next year's foreign aid bill would terminate all aid to the PA unless the Palestinian government drops its statehood bid at the United Nations and enters into direct negotiations with Israel. The Senate version is less strict; it would only withdraw the funding if the Palestinians actually succeed in joining the United Nations, which isn't likely due to the U.S. veto power at the Security Council. The Senate bill would also give the president a waiver over cutting aid to the PA.
"The prospect of continued assistance depends on the actions of Palestinian leadership, which can choose to pursue a path of direct negotiations rather than a counterproductive and destabilizing push for statehood through the UN and affiliated agencies," Matthew Dennis, spokesperson for Lowey, told The Cable.
"The chairwoman takes the views of all members into consideration," said Matt Leffingwell, spokesman for Granger.
President Barack Obama's administration has been clear that it wants U.S. aid to the PA to continue, because the assistance impacts Israeli security. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, told The Cable last week that he agrees that aid to the PA is important but will fight to end it anyway because of the politics surrounding the issue.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
The Democratic lawmakers who are making the case for the aid, along with some non-governmental organizations such as J Street, want to make sure top appropriators know that there is some support for aid to the Palestinians in Congress.
"The Price-Welch letter puts down a marker that there is a difference of opinion on whether aid to the PA should continue in Congress," Dylan Williams, J Street's director of government affairs, told The Cable today.
Williams said that many of the letter's signers supported House Resolution 268, passed in June, which threatened to cut off aid to the PA if it continued to seek U.N. membership. But seeing as how the Palestinians were able to join UNESCO with overwhelming international support, forcing the United States to stop contributing to that organization, he said those threats no longer makes sense.
"The situation has changed since HRes 268 and the bid to keep the Palestinians away from the United Nations has failed," Williams said.
The State Department is trying to convince Congress not to cut U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite the fact that the Palestinians are defying the United States by seeking statehood at the United Nations and specialized U.N. agencies.
"Congress should be aware of the potential second and third order effects of cutting off assistance to Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority," Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Friday. "We must ask ourselves, if we are no longer their partner, who will fill the void? We must think about the other potential partners that could fill the space left behind, and that should give us pause."
When the State and Foreign Ops appropriations bill comes up in the senate, probably next week, foreign aid will be scrutinized like never before by legislators eager to find budget cuts wherever they can. Leaders in both parties have also pledged to cut U.S. aid to the PA in order to punish the Palestinians for seeking statehood outside the peace process.
Just last week, lawmakers reacted angrily to the Palestinians' successful bid to join UNESCO, which triggered a law requiring the U.S. government to halt its contributions to the organization.
Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee ranking Republican Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Cable on Nov. 1 that Congress is poised to cut off all U.S. funding for the PA, which totaled $550 million in fiscal 2011, despite the fact that he still thinks financial support for the PA is a good idea.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
The Cable asked Shapiro how the State Department planned to defend PA funding and what the prospects were for success.
"We are in discussions with Capitol Hill about the best way to provide support," Shapiro responded. "Hopefully we'll be able to reach an agreement with Capitol Hill that preserves our interests."
Shapiro also urged Congress not to place conditions on U.S. aid to Egypt, which includes billions in military and economic support funding each year.
"I know that the uncertainty of the Egyptian transition has prompted some in Congress to propose conditioning our military assistance to Egypt. The administration believes that putting conditions on our assistance to Egypt is the wrong approach," Shapiro said. "Now is not the time to add further uncertainty in the region or disrupt our relationship with Egypt. Conditioning our assistance to Egypt risks putting our relations in a contentious place at the worst possible moment."
He also addressed State Department funding of political training for parties in Egypt, even Islamic parties that may have anti-Western agendas.
"As these Arab countries are going into political transitions, a number of new people are coming into the political process, many of whom describe themselves as Islamists. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they are anti-democratic." Shapiro said. "We need to support an effort and structure to channel this energy that's coming into the political process into an understanding of what democracy means and the benefits of it, and our training on the ground is designed to do so."
The Cable also asked Shapiro to explain the State Department's latest thinking on the proposed $53 million arms sale to Bahrain, which is also facing stiff congressional opposition. State has said it will consider the report of an "independent" Bahraini human rights commission before moving forward with the sale. Shapiro said that U.S. policymakers will also consider the Bahrain government's response to the report.
"We have committed that we will not move forward with that sale until the report comes out and we are able to assess the reporting and the Bahraini government response," he said.
The war in Iraq may be ending, but the fight over who gets to oversee the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars still being spent there is just heating up.
The Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) -- led by Stuart Bowen -- has been embroiled in a fight with the State Department, which has blocked SIGIR inspectors from assessing State's multi-billion dollar Iraqi police training program.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) reported last week that SIGIR managed to complete the report, which stated that the State Department "does not have a current assessment of Iraqi police forces' capabilities ... such an assessment is essential for effective program targeting."
"The SIGIR audit berated [the State Department] in its first sentence for failing to cooperate in the investigation, which ‘resulted in limited access to key officials and documents,'" POGO noted. "The IG was still able to complete the investigation however, through ‘limited discussions' and ‘documents obtained from other sources.'"
On Tuesday, five U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to urge her department to cooperate with SIGIR and provide SIGIR with requested information and documents.
"The State Department is explicitly directed to provide whatever information or assistance is needed by SIGIR, so long as SIGIR's request is ‘practicable and not in contravention of any existing law.' In addition, State Department officials are prohibited from ‘prevent[ing] or prohibit[ing] the Inspector General from initiating, carrying out, or completing any audit' related to funds involved in Iraq reconstruction," the senators wrote. "Despite these requirements, the State Department has failed to provide SIGIR with adequate assistance and access to information and documents."
The letter's signatories were Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
"SIGIR is perfectly free ... to audit the reconstruction activities in Iraq. They are not free to audit the base element of the State Department. That is within the jurisdiction of three other entities," Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy told the Wartime Contracting Commission in a hearing last month.
The senators wrote that SIGIR "has jurisdiction to audit all Iraq reconstruction funds, including those spent on contracts which may also support other State Department activities."
"It is absurd for Under Secretary Kennedy, or whoever it is, to suggest that the State Department is suffering from too much oversight in Iraq," a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable today. "He should take some time and read the Commission on Wartime Contracting report."
Full text of the senators' letter after the jump:
It's been almost one year since the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has had a permanent leader ... and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is not happy about it.
SIGAR Arnie Fields resigned in January following over a year of bipartisan congressional criticism of his stewardship of the oversight office, which is responsible for finding waste, fraud, and abuse in the tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars being spent to build Afghanistan. On Aug. 4, acting Special Inspector General Herbert Richardson, Fields's replacement, stepped down after only six months on the job, leaving that troubled office without a leader for the second time this year.
Now, three months later, there are no signs the White House is ready to name a new SIGAR. McCaskiill, who has been leading the drive to improve the office along with Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Susan Collins (R-ME), told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday that the vacancy is troubling and unacceptable.
"I am pushing as hard as I can to get a replacement named," McCaskill said. "Obviously I was very involved in getting General Fields out. I thought the interim [Richardson] was doing much better. I think it's unfortunate that he's gone and we need to get someone else in there."
McCaskill said that she asked the White House for an update on the status of a replacement late last month, and was led to believe a nomination was in the works. But none has materialized. So what's the reason for the inaction?
"I haven't gotten a good answer yet [from the White House]," McCaskill said.
A senior GOP senate aide told The Cable that senate staffs were informed a selection had been made but then that person turned down the job and now the administration is back to square one in looking for a candidate.
McCaskill added that while the auditing at SIGAR continues, the ongoing confusion atop the organization speaks to the need for a new, permanent special inspector general for all overseas contingency operations -- a proposal known as the Office of the Special Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations (SIGOCO), which was recommended by the Wartime Contracting Commission.
McCaskill said there is a need for a top oversight official who is "capable of going and looking wherever the U.S. military is operative."
The SIGOCO idea was first devised by Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) Stuart Bowen, who has been embroiled in a fight with the State Department over that agency's blocking of SIGIR inspectors from assessing the State's multi-billion dollar Iraqi police training program.
"SIGIR is perfectly free ... to audit the reconstruction activities in Iraq. They are not free to audit the base element of the State Department. That is within the jurisdiction of three other entities," Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy told the Wartime Contracting Commission in a hearing last month.
Today, Newsweek reported that Bowen believes the Iraqi Army is not fully prepared to take over security in Iraq as U.S. forces withdraw this year.
"As we pull out of Iraq, the Iraqis will have a difficult time replacing the U.S. role in intelligence, logistics, and air defense," Bowen said. "Whether they can sustain themselves if called upon for significant field operations is a big question mark."
Following the State Department's announcement that it had cut off U.S. funding from UNESCO in response to its overwhelming vote in favor of accepting the Palestinian bid for full membership, senators from both parties predicted the United States would cut funding or even withdraw from several other international organizations the Palestinians seek to join.
As The Cable reported last month, the Obama administration is required by existing U.S. law to cut off funding for any international organization that grants the Palestinians full membership. . Membership in UNESCO also grants the Palestinians membership in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The United States is not a member of UNIDO, but will be forced to stop contributing to WIPO.
But that's only the tip of the iceberg. The Palestinians could seek membership in more prominent international organizations, which could result in the United States defunding or even withdrawing from institutions such as the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The AP reported today that the Palestinian Authority was examining seeking membership in 16 more U.N. organizations.
While leading senators in both parties acknowledge that such an outcome would be negative for U.S. interests and influence, they have no intention of intervening to change the law. To the contrary, several top senators in both parties told The Cable they support the policy and will work to enforce it, despite the consequences.
"This could be catastrophic for the U.S.-U.N. relationship. This could be the tipping point," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee, told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday.
"There's a lot of bipartisan support for cutting off funding to any political U.N. organization that would do this," he said. "What you are going to do is eventually lose congressional support for our participation in the United Nations. That's what's at risk here. That would be a great loss."
Graham said he believes it is in the U.S. interest to actively participate in these organizations. And yet, he plans to introduce a Senate resolution to formally withdraw U.S. membership in UNESCO -- a more serious action than simply cutting off funds. He intends to do the same for any other international organizations the Palestinians succeed in joining.
Graham also said that Congress is poised to cut off U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA), which totaled $550 million in fiscal 2011, despite the fact that he still thinks financial support for the PA is a good idea.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
But isn't the United States just spiting itself by withdrawing from organizations in order to punish them for recognizing the Palestinians?
"Not really," Graham replied. "The world has to make a decision.... If the U.N. is going to be a body that buys into Palestinian statehood ... then they suffer. It's a decision they make."
Graham is seen as the most important GOP lawmaker in the fight to maintain foreign aid and U.S. involvement in international organizations, because of his subcommittee position and his genuine support for such issues. But when it comes to the issue of Palestinian recognition, the politics just don't allow any room for compromise, he said.
"I'm the closest thing to a friend [U.N. supporters] have [in the GOP]," he said. "But if the Palestinians continue to go to more organizations, such as the World Health Organization, well -- it's just going to be politically impossible for a guy like me to support a body who's playing a destructive game with the peace process."
Most of Graham's GOP colleagues are not as conflicted as he is with the idea of U.S. withdrawal from U.N. organizations.
"They've made a decision and they will pay the consequences for their decision," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable, referring to UNESCO. "And that is that U.S. tax dollars are not going to be spent, if I have anything to do with it, on organizations that take the measures they've taken."
Will senior Senate Democrats intervene on behalf of the U.S. role in international organizations? Not likely. Democratic senators told The Cable they either support cutting funds to U.N. organizations that grant membership to the Palestinians, or at least don't plan to do anything about it.
"We've put a very clear marker down in terms of what would be the result if there was an effort to prematurely declare a Palestinian state and [the administration] is implementing what they said they would do," said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). "It was the right thing to do and they should be implementing it."
Levin said that he hoped U.S. retaliatory action would slow down the Palestinian drive for recognition, and maintained that the United States would increase its influence by carrying through on its threats. The vote in UNESCO's General Conference was 107 to 14 in favor of Palestinian membership, with 52 abstentions.
Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told The Cable today he was fine with the cutting off of funds to UNESCO.
"That's what the law requires. It's been there for 20 years and whether I support it or not, that's the law," he said.
The senators don't blame the Obama administration for what is happening at the United Nations, because the administration has consistently called for the Palestinians to stop their statehood bid there. But Hill staffers in both parties have complained that the administration doesn't seem to have a plan to get out of the crisis or find a way around the law.
One Senate Republican staffer close to the issue told The Cable, "The administration is behaving just like a deer frozen in the headlights on this."
Earlier this year, the self-immolation of one Tunisian fruit vendor sparked a region-wide series of revolutions that upended autocrats around the Middle East. Meanwhile, no less than 10 Tibetan monks have set themselves on fire this year to protest Chinese repression in their homeland, but the international community has yet to take notice.
Lobsang Sangay, the newly-elected prime minister of Tibet's government-in-exile, is in Washington this week to raise awareness of the dire human rights situation in Tibet and to call for U.S. support. He'll be meeting with senators, congressmen, and NGO leaders to educate them on the deteriorating situation in Tibet, but he has not been granted any meetings with senior Obama administration officials -- presumably due to their fear of creating friction in the relationship with China. He sat down Monday for a long, exclusive interview with The Cable.
"The urgent message is the ongoing self-immolations," Sangay said. "That reflects the desperate state that Tibetans are in. They are forced to take such drastic action, which is really sad. The motivation is that they want to highlight the oppressive policies of the Chinese government.... It's tragic."
He met with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a long time supporter of the Tibetan cause, and plans to meet with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), and others. He will also speak on Wednesday at the National Press Club and testify before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, led by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA).
Sangay is hoping Congress will pass a resolution expressing solidarity with the Tibetan people and criticizing the repressive Chinese policies. He is also building support for his effort to provide funding that will help young Tibetans in exile receive an education in India and Nepal. Overall, he is simply hoping to highlight to Washington the worsening plight of Tibetans inside China.
"Many people are giving up their lives thinking the international community will come and hear their voices and support them," he said. "A resolution from Congress will send a message to Tibetans that their sacrifice is not in vain."
He also wants the Obama administration to put pressure on the Chinese government to improve the situation in Tibet. Sangay said the administration has raised the issue "in general" with Chinese leaders, but that he's not aware of any formal, concrete action by the administration on this issue.
The list of Chinese aggressive policies in Tibet is long, Sangay said, including economic marginalization, cultural assimilation, environmental destruction, and political repression. The crackdown on dissent has been increased, particularly in monastic communities, since the Tibetan uprising of 2008.
"Inside Tibet, they are giving up their lives and saying ‘Hear us. We are in a terrible situation and it's not worth living. We want you to acknowledge that you see us and you hear us,'" Sangay said. "So to acknowledge their suffering and to raise their aspirations and concerns, also to the Chinese government, that would go a long way."
We pressed Sangay to comment on the perception that the Obama administration has mistreated the Tibetan government-in-exile -- for example, by downgrading the location and publicity of Obama's meetings with the Dalai Lama and, in one case in Feb. 2010, making the Dalai Lama leave through a back door of the White House and walk past garbage in order to avoid the press.
"If we could have a result-oriented action, that would be most welcome. But a public display of support [by the Obama administration] has a symbolic meaning because that would encourage other countries to follow suit," he said. "We welcome both public and private gestures and public gestures have added significance."
He said the Chinese government is moving thousands of ethnically Han Chinese into Tibet to change the demographics of the region, and is installing party apparatchiks inside Tibetan monasteries under the rubric of "democratic management committees." He also said that an undeclared martial law has resulted in scores of Tibetans being arbitrarily arrested under trumped-up charges and then often disappeared altogether.
"When you read accounts of Chinese action in Africa, it looks like a replication of what is happening in Tibet," Sangay said, alleging that Tibet's water and other natural resources are being diverted out of the region. "Ten major rivers of Asia, which feed about one-third or more of the world's population, flow through Tibet.... You can call water the ‘white gold of the 21st century' and the Chinese are controlling that. It's affecting millions of people in Asia and creating a lot of tension."
So why hasn't the Tibetan crisis gotten as much world attention as the Arab Spring? In short, Sangay said that Chinese censorship and the isolation of the Tibetan community has impaired its ability to broadcast news of its plight.
"That's why I'm here, to make sure that these sacrifices do not go in vain," Sangay said, emphasizing that his government does not encourage self-immolation but feels a duty to speak up for protesters once they have acted.
The Chinese government doesn't recognize Sangay's government and often accuses him of promoting "anti-China splittist activities."
The Chinese government has sought to nominate the next Dalai Lama, a selection that Tibet's spiritual leaders said on Sept. 24 belongs to the current Dalai Lama alone. Sangay denounced China's position as ironic, given its denunciation of the Dalai Lama.
"It's a declared communist party, which believes that religion is poison.... They call the Dalai Lama the devil and they ban his photograph. So they want to choose the devil's incarnate?" Sangay said.
Sangay is not your typical prime minister-in-exile because, following the Dalai Lama's decision to transfer all political authority to the prime minister, he won the first really competitive race for the post. Before that, he spent 15 years in the United States, including time as a fellow at Harvard Law School, where he organized several meetings between Tibetan and Chinese scholars.
Sangay is committed to what's known as the "Middle Way," which refers to a call for Tibet's political autonomy and religious freedom but not independence from China. He sees a model in the example of Hong Kong, which is part of China but operates in its own way.
"I have a track record of someone who invests and believes in dialogue and I've met with hundreds of Chinese scholars," he said. "Many Chinese scholars do believe the Tibet issue is solvable because our demands are quite reasonable. It's the hard liners at the leadership level that are yet to come around."
He also said that the Tibetan issue is a matter of ethnic tolerance in China.
"They are willing to grant autonomy to Hong Kong and Macau because they are Han Chinese ... why they are not granting Tibetans autonomy is because they are Tibetans," he said. "Unless the leadership believes in diversity, they will never understand democracy.... Once they grant autonomy to Tibet, they will come around to embrace diversity, which will be the beginning of the real democratization of China."
The Obama administration has now met with the North Koreans twice and appointed two new top envoys for North Korea policy, but it has not yet consulted with Capitol Hill and has no plans to seek confirmation of the two new officials.
Glyn Davies, the newly appointed special representative for North Korea policy, attended the Oct. 24 and Oct. 25 talks in Geneva with North Korean government officials, along with his predecessor, outgoing Ambassador Stephen Bosworth. But Davies, who previously served as ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will not have his title of "ambassador" carry over to his new position, because the State Department has no intention of putting him before the Senate for confirmation.
Clifford Hart is the new special envoy to the (now defunct) Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program, the second-ranking U.S. diplomatic position toward North Korea. He also does not enjoy the title of ambassador, because he was not put before the Senate for confirmation. His predecessor, Sung Kim, was confirmed as ambassador to South Korea, and is now on his way to Seoul.
All of the previous top diplomats dealing with the North Korea issue were ambassadors. Robert Gallucci, Chuck Kartman, Jim Kelly, Jack Pritchard, Joe DeTrani, Chris Hill... you get the idea. Not all went through Senate confirmation for their North Korea jobs; some, like Bosworth, were able to keep their ambassador titles from previous gigs if they had reached a certain rank. Davies hasn't reached that level.
But regardless of whether Davies and Hart will actually hold the ambassador title or face a Senate confirmation process, many on Capitol Hill concerned with U.S. policy toward Northeast Asia are unhappy with the fact that neither Davies nor Hart has met with any senators, that there have been no Hill briefings on the administration's new engagement with the North Koreans, and that Senate staffers who have worked on the issue for years had to learn about the new developments through the press.
"State has not reached out to us on these appointments," one Senate aide told The Cable. "They have responded to our requests for briefings on food aid, and they have generally been responsive for briefings when we asked. But there has been no outreach at their initiative ... which helps explain, I think, why they had the House move to prohibit food aid and why they now face a lack of confidence up here, more generally, about their approach."
After multiple rounds of negotiations between The Cable and various State Department offices, State declined to give us a comment for this story.
The law doesn't require that the North Korea special envoy be confirmed. There are laws that require other envoys be confirmed, such as for the special envoy for North Korean human rights, now filled by Ambassador Bob King, and the special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, now held by Derek Mitchell.
Hill aides point out that the jobs of North Korea special representative and special envoy for the Six Party Talks came out of what's known as the Perry Process, an interagency policy review of U.S. policy toward North Korea in 1998 that was led by then-State Department counselor and now Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman.
One of the key recommendations that came out of the Perry Process was that the U.S. government should have "a small, senior-level interagency North Korea working group ... chaired by a senior official of ambassadorial rank, located in the Department of State, to coordinate policy."
Another recommendation of the Perry Process was that the administration should develop its North Korea policies on a bipartisan basis, in consultation with Capitol Hill.
"Just as no policy toward the DPRK can succeed unless it is a combined strategy of the United States and its allies, the policy review team believes no strategy can be sustained over time without the input and support of Congress," the Perry review team, led by Sherman, wrote.
So why won't the administration keep Congress in the loop on what it's doing with the North Koreans? One Asia hand in Washington told The Cable that the administration doesn't want a public debate over its North Korea engagement, which is not likely to produce dramatic results and could be a political liability in an election season.
"They're definitely avoiding going to the Hill with these guys because they're afraid of criticism and they're afraid the senators are going to use it to criticize where the policy is now," the Asia hand said. "It's all part of their management approach, where you keep everything low key and don't want everybody to know what you're doing."
Former National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Mike Green argued in an article for Foreign Policy last week that the Obama administration is downgrading the prominence of its North Korea diplomats in order to lower expectations for the new engagement, and to keep the podium away from more senior diplomats who might act more independently.
"High profile special envoys and message discipline tend not to go together, and the Obama White House is clearing the decks for a major fight for the presidency next year," Green wrote. "Lower key professionals make sense at a time when North Korea is unlikely to yield much ground."
Perhaps the administration doesn't want senators to bring up this 2008 column by the Washington Post's Al Kamen, where he reveals that Davies worked to water down language criticizing North Korea in an internal e-mail. Here's the relevant portion of the column:
So on Friday, Glyn Davies, the principal deputy assistant secretary in the East Asia bureau, sent an e-mail to Erica Barks-Ruggles, a deputy assistant secretary in the DRL bureau, regarding some changes in the introductory language of a report on North Korea.
"Erica," he wrote, "I know you are under the NSC [National Security Council] gun," apparently to get the report done so the NSC can review it, "but hope given the Secretary's priority on the Six-Party Talks, we can sacrifice a few adjectives for the cause.
"Many thanks. Glyn."
And the changes? Eliminated words are in brackets, and additions are in italics:
"The [repressive] North Korean government[regime] continued to control almost all aspects of citizens' lives, denying freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, and restricting freedom of movement and workers' rights. Reports of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and arbitrary detention, including of political prisoners, continue to emerge [from the isolated country]. Some forcibly repatriated refugees were said to have undergone severe punishment and possibly torture. Reports of public executions continued to surface[were on the rise]."
As Hemingway might have written: For Whom the Kowtows?
Bahrain's government is under pressure -- not just from protesters in Manama, but also from parts of the Washington foreign policy community, who want to delay U.S. arms sales to the country. Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa has been in town for over a week meeting with officials and lawmakers to assuage U.S. concerns over the kingdom's domestic crackdown, and sat down for a lengthy interview with The Cable.
Khalifa's message was clear: The Bahraini government is sensitive to international concerns about its treatment of protesters, pledges to follow the recommendations of an upcoming commission report on its actions, and wants to reinforce that the international community should not lose sight of the broader security situation in the region, characterized by the Iranian threat.
"I'm here to see our friends in the administration and Congress to try to explain what's happening in Bahrain," he said. "We are just before the issuance of the commission of inquiry's report. I'm here to show our commitment to that, how we will accept it and do all that is necessary to implement it."
That report, being written by Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), was established by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and is chaired by human rights advocate and professor M. Cherif Bassiouni. It is expected to be released on Nov. 23. Bassiouni has faced some criticism for making statements that appear to be to conciliatory to the regime, but he recently promised his report will give the Bahraini government "some bitter pills to swallow."
After five U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month to protest the pending $53 million sale of armored Humvees and missiles to Bahrain, the State Department wrote a letter to Congress last week linking the arms sale directly to the BICI report.
Khalifa said his government has been alarmed by congressional opposition to the arms sale, but said that he trusts the Obama administration to judge the outcome of the commission's report fairly. He also argued that a delay in completing the arms sale would not be in the interest of regional security.
"What worries us is that we don't need to delay any requirement for the necessary architecture to protect the region. Bahrain is a cornerstone of that," he said. "That's what I'm talking about here and I'm finding very listening ears."
Of course, one component of that emerging regional security architecture is the Peninsula Shield Force, made up of dozens of tanks and approximately 40,000 troops that came to Bahrain via Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE during the height of the unrest in March. Those forces are still there but are "purely to deter external threats," Khalifa maintains.
Opposition groups claim that 30 protesters have been killed by the government during its domestic crackdown, and more than 1,000 have been arrested. Independent organizations such as Human Rights Watch have reported that the government has employed brutal tactics, including using masked thugs to sweep up lawyers and other activists in nighttime raids.
The Obama administration has several interests in Bahrain, the fact that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed there being chief among them. Bahrain is also a client state of Saudi Arabia and policymakers have voiced fears that a victory by the protest movement would strengthen Iranian influence in the country.
Khalifa didn't meet with any of the senators who signed the letter, but he did meet with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), John Kerry (D-MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH).
Rubio, a strong supporter of the U.S.-Bahrain relationship, sent his own letter to Clinton arguing that the administration should delay the sale of the Humvees, but not the missiles. Rubio wrote that the administration should delay the sale of "any items within the proposed weapons package that could be used to disrupt peaceful dissent."
Khalifa told The Cable that no military hardware has been used against protestors. "Our soldiers did help the police under the banner of the police... but no military hardware was used," he said. Several videos have surfaced of armored troop carriers allegedly firing on protesters and journalists.
So what is the urgency of the U.S. arms sale? Khalifa said that if the United States wants to advance deepening security ties with the Arab Gulf states, any delays would only send the wrong signal to the region's adversaries, principally Iran.
"The claims of torture, that is in the hands of the commission of inquiry," Khalifa said. He said that all government police are clearing identified and sometimes they use overwhelming force during arrests because of the chaotic situation in some Bahraini towns. "If the arrest happens at night, some of the villages are not in a very orderly place. So maybe the arrest was to minimize chaos," he explained.
Khalifa said he didn't have any information on the specific case of Jaleela al-Saman, vice president of the Bahrain Teachers Association, who was reportedly arrested for the second time last week in a night-time raid. Khalifa said that any federal employee who was unfairly dismissed will be rehired.
Khalifa acknowledged that dozens of Shiite mosques and other religious structures have been destroyed by the government in recent months, a step that President Barack Obama condemned in his May 19 speech on the Arab uprisings. However, he said that the structures were demolished for violating building codes or infringing on property that didn't belong to them, not as part of a crackdown on protestors.
"What wasn't helpful was the timing of that happening," he said. "Why were those structures targeted during the national safety situation? That's a serious question. It was ill-timing. It should not have happened in association with restoring law and order in Bahrain."
He added that some Sunni religious structures were also destroyed, and he pledged that the government will pay for the cost of rebuilding structures if they are in adherence with laws and codes, and that "will start soon."
It's too early to tell if Khalifa's charm offensive has had any impact. Rubio spoke with The Cable after meeting with the foreign minister, and said he hadn't changed his view on the arms sales package ... yet.
"We have a special obligation to our allies to encourage them on the road to democracy. I don't expect them to get there overnight," Rubio said. "Bahrain is a country that is friendly and helpful to us, but I believe that their status quo politically is unsustainable and in the long term undermines their ability to resist the pressures put on them not just internally, but also from Iran."
The Obama administration, meanwhile, continues to point to the BICI report as a key element that will inform the next steps in its relations with the kingdom. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated that mantra today following Khalifa's meeting at the State Department with Clinton.
"This investigation, we hope, will speak not only to individual incidents, but also to systemic changes that can be made to prevent future such abuses," Nuland said. "And we will look not only for a full, transparent, independent report, but also for the government to take steps to redress shortcomings that are found."
Khalifa struck a confident note that, in the end, it will all work out between the United States and Bahrain.
"We're allies, we're friends. If your friends don't give you advice, what kind of friends are they?" he said. "I think definitely, with commitment, we will sail through this."
The Obama administration is claiming it always intended to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year, in line with the president's announcement today, but in fact several parts of the administration appeared to try hard to negotiate a deal for thousands of troops to remain -- and failed.
"I can report that as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over," President Barack Obama said today, after speaking with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "The last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their held -- heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops. That is how America's military efforts in Iraq will end."
Deputy National Security Advisors Denis McDonough and Tony Blinken said in a White House briefing that this was always the plan.
"What we were looking for was an Iraq that was secure, stable, and self reliant, and that's what we got here, so there's no question that was a success," said McDonough, who traveled to Iraq last week.
But what about the extensive negotiations the administration has been engaged in for months, regarding U.S. offers to leave thousands of uniformed soldiers in Iraq past the deadline? It has been well reported that those negotiations, led by U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and White House official Brett McGurk, had been stalled over the U.S. demand that the remaining troops receive immunity from Iraqi courts.
"What the president preferred was for the best relationship for the United States and Iraq going forward. That's exactly what we have now," McDonough said, barely acknowledging the administration's intensive negotiations.
"We talked about immunities, there's no question about that.... But the bottom line is that the decision you heard the president talk about today is reflective of his view and the prime minister's view of the kind of relationship we want to have going forward. That relationship is a normal relationship," he said.
Of course, the U.S.-Iraqi relationship is anything but normal. Following nine years of war, the death of over 4,000 Americans and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and the disbursement of at least hundreds of billions of dollars of American taxpayer' money, the United States now stands to have significantly less influence in Iraq than if the administration had been able to come to terms with Iraq over a troop extension, according to experts and officials.
"Iraq is not a normal country, the security environment is not normal, the embassy is not a normal embassy," said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, managing director at the Institute for the Study of War, who traveled to Iraq this summer and has been sounding the alarm about what she saw as the mishandling of the negotiations ever since.
For more evidence that the administration actually wanted to extend the troop presence in Iraq, despite today's words by Obama and McDonough, one only has to look at the statements of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
In July, Panetta urged Iraqi leaders to, "Dammit, make a decision" about the U.S. troop extension. In August, he told reporters that, "My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes.'" On Oct. 17, he was still pushing for the extension and said, "At the present time I'm not discouraged because we're still in negotiations with the Iraqis."
Sullivan was one of 40 conservative foreign policy professionals who wrote to Obama in September to warn that even a residual force of 4,000 troops would "leave the country more vulnerable to internal and external threats, thus imperiling the hard-fought gains in security and governance made in recent years at significant cost to the United States."
She said that the administration's negotiating strategy was flawed for a number of reasons: it failed to take into account Iraqi politics, failed to reach out to a broad enough group of Iraqi political leaders, and sent contradictory messages on the troop extension throughout the process.
"From the beginning, the talks unfolded in a way where they largely driven by domestic political concerns, both in Washington and Baghdad. Both sides let politics drive the process, rather than security concerns," said Sullivan.
As recently as August, Maliki's office was discussing allowing 8,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops to remain until next year, Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie said in an interview with The Cable. He told us that there was widespread support in Iraq for such an extension, but the Obama administration was demanding that immunity for U.S. troops be endorsed by the Iraqi Council of Representatives, which was never really possible.
Administration sources and Hill staffers also tell The Cable that the demand that the troop immunity go through the Council of Representatives was a decision made by the State Department lawyers and there were other options available to the administration, such as putting the remaining troops on the embassy's diplomatic rolls, which would automatically give them immunity.
"An obvious fix for troop immunity is to put them all on the diplomatic list; that's done by notification to the Iraqi foreign ministry," said one former senior Hill staffer. "If State says that this requires a treaty or a specific agreement by the Iraqi parliament as opposed to a statement by the Iraqi foreign ministry, it has its head up its ass."
The main Iraqi opposition party Iraqiya, led by former U.S. ally and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, decided to tie that vote to two non-related issues. It said they would not vote for the troop extension unless Maliki agreed give them control of a high-level policy council and let them choose the minister of defense from their ranks. Maliki wasn't about to do either.
"It was clear from the beginning that Maliki wasn't going to make a move without the support of the other parties behind him," Sullivan explained, adding that the Obama administration focused on Maliki and neglected other actors, such as Allawi. "There was a misunderstanding of how negotiations were unfolding in Iraq. The negotiations got started in earnest far too late."
"The actions don't match the words here," said Sullivan. "It's in the administration's interest to make this look not like they failed to reach an agreement and that they fulfilled a campaign promise. But it was very clear that Panetta and [former Defense Secretary Robert] Gates wanted an agreement."
So what's the consequence of the failed negotiations? One consequence could be a security vacuum in Iraq that will be filled by Iran.
"It's particularly troubling because having some sort of presence there would have really facilitated our policy vis-a-vis the Iranians and what's going on in Syria. The Iranian influence is going up in Iraq," said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It makes it harder for us to play our cards, and that's a real setback. We've spent a lot of blood and treasure in Iraq. And these days, stability in that region is not what it used to be."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) echoed those sentiments in a statement today and expressed skepticism that Iraq is as "safe, stable, and self reliant" as the White House claims.
"Multiple experts have testified before my committee that the Iraqis still lack important capacities in their ability to maintain their internal stability and territorial integrity," McKeon said. "These shortcomings could reverse the decade of hard work and sacrifice both countries have endured to build a free Iraq."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), in his own Friday statement, backed up the administration's argument that the lack of a troop extension was in the best interest of the United States and Iraq.
"The United States is fulfilling our agreement with an Iraqi government that wants to shape its own future," he said. "The President is also following through on his commitment to end both the conflict in Iraq and our military presence... These moves appropriately reflect the changes on the ground. American troops in Iraq will be coming home, having served with honor and enormous skill."
UPDATE: This article was amended after a White House official called in to say that it was not the "White House" that was pushing for an extension of U.S. troops.
"The White House has always seen the president's pledge to get all troops out of Iraq as a core commitment, period," the White House official said.
The Obama administration late Thursday formally announced the appointment of Mark Lippert as the next assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Lippert was one of President Barack Obama's earliest and closest advisors on foreign policy, having been with Obama since his days as a senator. He was a key figure in Obama's presidential campaign and served as chief of staff of the National Security Council (NSC), a position that had not existed in George W. Bush's administration but which Obama resurrected in 2009.
Lippert was pushed out of the White House after an internal struggle with then National Security Advisor Jim Jones, who blamed Lippert for a series of negative leaks to the press about Jones' mismanagement of the NSC.
"In July , Jones laid out his case to Obama and others. All seemed to agree that it was rank insubordination. Obama promised to move on Lippert," Woodward wrote. "On October 1, the day of the McChrystal speech in London, the White House press secretary issued a three-paragraph statement that Lippert was returning to active duty in the Navy. The statement made it sound as though this had been Lippert's choice. ‘I was not surprised,' Obama said in the statement, ‘when he came and told me he had stepped forward for another mobilization, as Mark is passionate about the Navy.'"
Jones was later pushed out himself, after being blamed by top White House officials for a series of leaks to the press about the White House's top advisors, whom he called "the water bugs, the "Politburo," "the mafia," and the "campaign set," according to Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars.
While serving overseas on multiple tours, Lipper was an intelligence officer for the Navy Seals and participated Navy Special Warfare missions in Africa.
The Lippert nomination was an open secret in Washington as early as April, but the nomination never came. The rumor was that Defense Secretary Robert Gates did not want Lippert, a close confidant of the White House clique, burrowed inside the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Now, with Gates gone, that obstacle has apparently been removed. The Cable reported in July that Lippert was never removed from the White House payroll system, although an administration official said he did not receive his White House pay and benefits while on active duty.
If confirmed, Lippert will succeed Gen. Chip Gregson, who resigned in April. Following a reorganization of the Pentagon's policy shop in 2009, Gregson's office was given a portfolio that includes China, Japan, North and South Korea, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Gregson, who focused mostly on the Northeast Asia part of that portfolio, was known as a knowledgeable and competent official who nonetheless played a less prominent role in diplomacy than his State Department counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.
Privately, administration sources told The Cable that Gregson ultimately could not keep pace with the ambitious political agenda set by the State Department, which is seen as the locus of administration power in much of Asia. He is said by these sources to have fallen somewhat out of favor with Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, a close confidant of Campbell's. Flournoy and Campbell founded the Center for a New American Security before entering the Obama administration.
Unlike Gregson, Lippert has no experience working in the Pentagon and no direct experience working on East Asian diplomacy. Chris Nelson of the Nelson Report, an insiders' newsletter on Asia policy, presented the administration's case for Lippert in his report on Thursday.
"During the Campaign, he was the principal liason (sic) between the Asia advisory team run by Jeff Bader, who became the Senior Director for Asia at the NSC, and the candidate; Second, his exhaustive, face-to-face involvement with the President, and senior NSC, State and DOD staff, on all Asia related matters during his year at the NSC," Nelson wrote, adding that Lippert "still has the deepest trust of Obama and his folks."
In April, it was reported by Nelson that when the Lippert nomination was first floated, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) objected, "due to Lippert's well-known opposition, while at the White House, to Obama's ‘surge' in Afghanistan." Neither McCain nor Graham has ever publicly expressed an objection to the Lippert nomination.
We've called around, and there aren't any Senate offices that are pledging to hold up the Lippert nomination -- yet. However, one senior Senate GOP aide told The Cable in July that "Mark Lippert's nomination to be assistant secretary of defense for Asia would be tremendous hold bait and an opportunity for the Senate to get a hearing on all of the president's China and Taiwan's policies."
The Asia policy shop in the Pentagon had been run by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Mitchell, until he was tapped to become special representative and policy coordinator for Burma. Now the office is run by acting Assistant Secretary Peter Lavoy, who came over from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The death of Muammar al-Qaddafi today shows what's in store for the leadership of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which will probably be the next group of tyrants to be thrown out of office and potentially killed, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), told The Cable.
"If you're the leaders of Syria, you're looking at today's events as a preview of what your future may hold," Rubio said in a Thursday interview.
"I believe that dictators in that region are unsustainable," he said. "The Syrian regime is doomed and it's just a matter of time, whether it's weeks, months, or even a year, their position is unsustainable. The people there want a better life. They're tired of living under this ineffective, incompetent, and repressive regime. And so, I think their days are numbered."
He called on the Obama administration to ratchet up the pressure on the Syrian government and redouble its efforts to convince other countries to do the same.
Rubio wasn't ready to endorse the idea of an internationally imposed no-fly zone over Syria, as his colleague, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), did earlier this month in an interview with The Cable.
"There are major differences between Syria and Libya," Rubio said, claiming that the Syrian regime isn't using planes to attack its people and the Syrian opposition hasn't asked for an international military intervention.
"I think it's important that if you're assisting someone that you know who they are and that they are asking for your help," he said.
Earlier on Thursday, Rubio told Fox News that the bulk of the credit for the success of the military effort in Libya belongs to the British and the French, and that if President Barack Obama had acted faster, Qaddafi's death would have come months ago.
"It's the French and the British that led on this fight and probably even led in the strike that led to Qaddafi's capture and death," Rubio said."[President Obama did] the right things but he just took too long to do it and didn't do enough of it."
Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) will begin its handover of power and set up elections following the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Libyan ambassador to Washington told The Cable.
"That's what they declared before and that's what they have to do now. Now they have to start work for the election and the institution building for the new Libya," said Ambassador Ali Aujali today.
Aujali also outlined the help that Libya was seeking from the U.S. government and the American business community in the wake of Qaddafi's death. The NTC wants U.S. assistance in training its military, protecting its borders, and setting up the foundations of the new government and civil society. He invited American companies to participate in the reconstruction of Libya.
"Qaddafi was the one who was always an issue and an obstacle to a relationship based on confidence and mutual interest," Aujali said.
He specifically called for U.S. medical aid for injured Libyan fighters, a proposal that senators such as John McCain (R-AZ) have also supported. Medical assistance was part of the $11 million aid package that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on her visit to Tripoli earlier this week.
(Clinton learned of Qaddafi's death over her Blackberry during a stop in Afghanistan earlier on Thursday.)
Aujali said that Qaddafi was killed by rebel militias and his death was not related to any NATO airstrike missions. He also said that he had heard, but could not independently confirm, that Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam was dead.
"These types of regimes always end in tragedy," he said.
The Libyan embassy in Washington is tasked with expressing the NTC's gratitude to its American interlocutors for the role the United States played in the months-long struggle against the Qaddafi regime.
"Thanks to the U.S. and NATO and the Arab countries that supported us and came forward to help the Libyan people," Aujali said.
President Barack Obama made brief remarks about Qaddafi's death at the White House this afternoon and called for a quick formation of an interim government and a stable transition to Libya's first free and fair elections.
"You have won your revolution and now we will be a partner as you forge a future that provides dignity, freedom, and opportunity," he said "For the region, today's events prove once more that rule by an iron fist inevitably comes to an end."
The death of deposed Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi vindicates the Obama administration's multilateral military strategy in Libya, according to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA).
"The United States demonstrated clear-eyed leadership, patience, and foresight by pushing the international community into action after Qaddafi promised a massacre," Kerry said in a statement. "Though the administration was criticized both for moving too quickly and for not moving quickly enough, it is undeniable that the NATO campaign prevented a massacre and contributed mightily to Qaddafi's undoing without deploying boots on the ground or suffering a single American fatality."
Some have argued that the Obama administration was pushed into military intervention in Libya by the international community, led by the French and the British. Regardless, Kerry emphasized that he was one of the voices that supported the intervention.
"This is a victory for multilateralism and successful coalition-building in defiance of those who derided NATO and predicted a very different outcome," he said.
Kerry's statement also referenced his Wall Street Journal op-ed published in March, in which he defended the NATO-led action and made clear that it never had the goal of forcing Qaddafi from power.
"The military intervention was not directly intended to force Qaddafi from power, but the international community will remain united in maintaining diplomatic and economic pressure on a thug who has lost any legitimacy he ever possessed," Kerry wrote at the time.
Kerry's counterpart, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), expressed hope that the new Libyan government's foreign policy would be more Western-leaning.
"If Qaddafi is confirmed dead and his loyalists defeated, it marks a critical moment for the Libyan people to turn their nation away from its grim past as a rogue state and toward a future of freedom marked by alliances with the United States, Israel, European democracies, and other responsible nations," she said in her own statement.
Both Kerry and Ros-Lehtinen urged the National Transitional Council government to adhere to standards of political inclusion, transparency, and move quickly toward establishing a democracy.
"The Libyan people must seize this opportunity to realize their democratic aspirations and not squander it through factional fighting over the political spoils," Ros-Lehtinen said. "The new leaders must demonstrate a commitment to working with the U.S., and to securing control over dangerous weapons and rooting out extremist groups."
Tonight, when Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad comes to Washington to speak at the annual gala of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), he will be endorsing an organization that is punching well above its weight in the U.S. policy debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
ATFP, a non-profit, moderate pro-Palestinian organization that has been in existence since 2003, has only five permanent staff members in its downtown D.C. office, but has managed to vault itself to the fore of the Washington foreign policy discussion over the Middle East peace process. "They've been critical in getting sustained and high levels of support from both Republican and Democratic administrations," an administration official told The Cable. "They have pretty high access, they can pass messages, they can work quietly with the Hill, they're not media attention seekers, they are trusted and they try to work behind the scenes."
ATFP's willingness to play the Washington game, on Washington's terms, has earned it both praise and scorn, but there is no doubt that it has given the organization a prominence in the Israeli-Palestinian debate that other pro-Palestinian groups have failed to achieve over the years.
The group is led by president and founder Dr. Ziad J. Asali, Ghaith Al-Omari, a former foreign policy advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Senior Fellow Hussein Ibish. The trio has managed to attract high-level administration favor (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton keynoted their gala last year) and praise from the pro-Israel community. The downside of their strategy, however, has been a notable absence of grassroots Palestinian support and a recent backlash from parts of the Palestinian establishment, including a break in relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington.
"We have chosen to work within the establishment," Omari said in an interview with The Cable. "Basically we believe the two-state solution is in the U.S. national interest. When we came up with this mission nine years ago it was groundbreaking. Now it is policy."
Omari noted that ATFP has framed its policies in terms of the U.S. national interest and its willingness to engage with parts of the Washington establishment that other pro-Palestinian groups have neglected.
"What we have discovered, much to our surprise, is that we were knocking on open doors," Omari said. He coined the strategy as one of "mainstreaming Palestine."
Some media reports have compared the group to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) because of ATFP's lobbying tenacity on Capitol Hill and its interwoven relationships with administration officials and Washington interest groups on all sides of the political divide. But Omari rejects that comparison.
"We are very different from AIPAC. We're not lobbyists, we're a non-profit organization," he said. "I wish we had the Palestinian-American community as such an organized political presence."
ATFP's policy positions often deviate from the orthodoxy within the Palestinian community. The group's board narrowly voted to stay neutral on the issue of Abbas's bid to seek member state status for Palestine at the United Nations (a bid Fayyad was rumored to oppose). It also doesn't currently support the idea of a unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Omari said.
But can ATFP help defend against congressional cuts in U.S. funding for Palestinian institutions? That's the main mission of the group right now, he said.
"There are tons of pro-Israel organizations in Washington that engage in the debate; in the pro-Palestinian community I could argue we are the only one," he said. "There is a hunger in this town for a voice that understands the Palestinians and can speak about their interests in a way that takes into account the way that Washington operates."
ATFP's clash with the Palestinian establishment has come into public view in recent weeks. Board member Daoud Kuttab broke ties with the group after it refused to endorse Abbas's U.N. strategy.
"The paternalistic attitude that Americans including American Palestinians know what is best for Palestinians and their leadership is an arrogant attitude that I can't agree to be part of," he wrote. "Whenever a lobbying organization reaches the position that it has to worry about its own existence and how the local powers consider it, that is the day that such an organization has lost its mission statement."
Then, last week, Politico reported that the PLO mission in Washington led by Maen Rashid Areikat had sent a letter to ATFP announcing that the mission was severing all ties to the group.
In an interview, Ibish confirmed the existence of the letter but said it didn't make sense to him because ATFP never had formal ties to the PLO mission in the first place.
"Why the PLO sent us this cryptic letter and gives no context whatsoever is really something that I can't explain," Ibish said.
Like Omari, Ibish rejected the comparison to AIPAC. "It's in a sense flattering. I think if we had the kind of resources they do, we'd probably look more like WINEP [Washington Institute for Near East Policy] than AIPAC."
Ibish said that the majority of ATFP's funding comes from Arab sources, but he acknowledged that the organization has Jewish donors as well, who are welcome to give as long as they support ATFP's goal of a two-state solution.
Josh Block, former spokesman for AIPAC, said that ATFP is respected in Washington policy-making circles, including the pro-Israel community, "because they are seen as serious players with ideas and access -- on the Hill, with the White House, and in the region."
"One of the things that distinguishes them from the other actors in the Arab pro-Palestinian camp is their willingness to challenge corruption, condemn terrorism without equivocation and meet with other stakeholders without precondition," he said. "Credibility in Washington is hard to come by, and Ziad Asali has certainly earned it."
Even Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who would have attended tonight's gala if not for the fact that he was observing the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, had kind words for the group.
"We interact very frequently and on a friendly basis with the ATFP," he said. "We view them as partners and as friends."
And if you are at the gala tonight, stop by and say hello to your humble Cable guy. I'm usually seated somewhere near the back of the room.
All the GOP presidential candidates agree on one thing: The United States should cut foreign assistance and international humanitarian assistance programs. Their only differences are over how much.
"The American people are suffering in our country right now. Why do we continue to send foreign aid to other countries when we need all the help we can get for ourselves?" asked a woman in the audience of Tuesday's GOP primary debate in Las Vegas.
Rick Perry started off the responses by calling for "a very serious discussion about defunding the United Nations." The crowd cheered and applauded.
Calling the Palestinian drive to seek member status at the United Nations in September a travesty, Perry said that was reason enough to stop contributing. "Why are we funding that organization?" he asked.
Mitt Romney said that defense-related portions of the foreign aid budget should be transferred to the Defense Department and humanitarian aid responsibilities should be ceded to the Chinese government.
"I happen to think it doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give it to another country for humanitarian aid. We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people that are -- and think of that borrowed money," he said to applause from the crowd.
If either of the leading candidates were somewhat measured, Ron Paul was not. He said that foreign aid "should be the easiest thing to cut" because it's not explicitly authorized in the Constitution. "To me, foreign aid is taking money from poor people in this country and giving it to rich people in poor countries, and it becomes weapons of war, essentially, no matter how well motivated it is," he said.
Paul also said we should cut all foreign aid to Israel. Michele Bachmann disagreed, taking the opportunity to make the case that President Barack Obama is the first president to put "daylight" between the United States and Israel.
"That's heavily contributed to the current hostilities that we see in the Middle East region," she said, reprising her criticism of the entire Arab Spring.
The candidates also weighed in on defense spending. Bachmann was asked if defense spending should be on the table for cuts, and wavered somewhat, opening the door to cuts while saying that $500 billion in defense budget cuts that would be triggered if the congressional supercommittee can't come to a deal to find at least $1.2 trillion in cuts was too much.
Newt Gingrich, calling himself a "cheap hawk," said that the supercommittee was not qualified to make such decisions and said the defense budget should be driven by strategy and threats, not arbitrary numbers.
"The idea that you'll have a bunch [of] historically illiterate politicians who have no sophistication about national security trying to make a numerical decision about the size of the defense budget tells you everything you need to know about the bankruptcy of the current elite in this country -- in both parties," he said.
For FP Passport's compilation of the debate's foreign policy highlights, click here.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is leading a very high-level delegation to Pakistan later this week to try one more time to set U.S.-Pakistan relations back on track, before they go off the rails altogether.
The State Department won't confirm that Clinton is visiting Pakistan as part of her tour this week, which we're told will include stops in Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Oman. But two senior officials have confirmed to The Cable that when Clinton arrives in Pakistan (we'll keep dates secret for security reasons), she'll be joined by CIA Director David Petraeus, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, and several other administration officials.
Pakistani media already reported that the very senior U.S. delegation will have meetings with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, and Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The trip was set up by the special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Marc Grossman, who was in Islamabad last week.
"It's Hillary's initiative," one senior official told The Cable. "This is what Hillary convinced the administration to do because although the relationship has been at its lowest in some years, the U.S. side doesn't want to pronounce their effort to improve the U.S.-Pakistan relationship dead."
The Obama team had been playing a game of "good cop, bad cop" with the Pakistanis as a means of ratcheting up pressure, following the uptick of attacks on Americans traced back to militant groups residing in Pakistan. U.S. officials have stated publicly that these groups are working with either the implicit or the explicit sanctioning of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
"Hillary is trying to position herself in the middle and say to Pakistan that there are those of us who want to engage and others who want to fold. How long do you want to play this game of poker?" the official said.
The mixture of threats and outreach coming from different parts of the Obama administration had the side effect of confusing their Pakistani interlocutors, according to experts. Now the administration wants to put forth one clear message, delivered by top diplomats and top military and intelligence officials all in the same room.
"The problem is still that different parts of the U.S. government, as far as Pakistan is concerned, are giving different messages," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. "There needs to be a concise, unified message from Washington as to what the intentions are. In terms of high-level contact, we really haven't had that for a long while, so it's very critical."
The Obama administration is also trying to reprise the basic idea of the now defunct U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, which was meant to improve coordination of policy within both governments and also move the relationship from a "transactional" to a "strategic" one.
Some top officials no longer believe that a "strategic" relationship with Pakistan is possible, and around Washington, there is a growing realization that U.S. and Pakistani long-term strategic interests may not align, said Bruce Riedel, the Brookings Institution scholar who led Obama's first review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy in 2009.
"We must recognize that the two countries' strategic interests are in conflict, not harmony, and will remain that way as long as Pakistan's army controls Pakistan's strategic policies," Riedel wrote in an Oct. 15 New York Times op-ed. "We must contain the Pakistani Army's ambitions until real civilian rule returns and Pakistanis set a new direction for their foreign policy."
In an interview Monday, Riedel told The Cable that the administration should abandon its efforts to seek help from the Pakistanis in bringing the Haqqani network and other militant groups to the table for peace negotiations, especially after the killing of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani by the Pakistan-based Taliban leadership.
"Grossman's primary mission of trying to find political reconciliation with the Taliban has been overtaken by events," Riedel said. "When one party murders the leader on the other side, we pretty much have an answer as to whether or not there's going to be a political reconciliation process."
The administration plans to warn the Pakistani government about the turning tide of public opinion in Washington against Pakistan and congressional threats to punish Pakistan. But if the Pakistanis don't change their approach to these groups, it's unclear what sticks the administration could really use against Pakistan to compel better behavior.
Overall, the Obama administration wants Pakistan to know it can't accept Americans being killed because of what's happening inside Pakistan. But there aren't expected to be any grand, new initiatives or new proposals to lift bilateral relations from what all sides agree is the lowest point in years.
"The U.S.-Pakistani relationship has been deteriorating all year, from the Raymond Davis case to the Osama bin Laden raid to the attack on the American Embassy in Kabul," said Riedel. "And there's really no evidence the bottom is in sight; it may be getting worse and worse."
The Obama administration's negotiations with the government of Iraq regarding a post-2011 U.S. troop presence are ongoing, but the prospects of reaching an agreement are dwindling fast, according to close observers of the process.
"I would just say that, despite some of the reports that you may have seen over the weekend, that no final decisions have been made," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters today in response to several reports over the weekend that the negotiations to keep thousands of U.S. military personnel in Iraq past 2011 have broken down.
"At the present time I'm not discouraged because we're still in negotiations with the Iraqis," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday.
Discussions with the Iraqis have focused on the administration's demand that U.S. troops remaining in Iraq have immunity from Iraqi courts. In August, Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie told The Cable that a deal on immunity was in the works and that the Iraqis would formally request an extension of thousands of U.S. troops' presence "in our own sweet time."
But the current U.S.-Iraq bilateral agreements dictate that all U.S. troops must withdraw by the end of the year, and as time runs out, the chances of a deal on immunity are fading fast.
Ramzy Mardini, a scholar at the Institute for the Study of War who traveled to Iraq in July, said that the reason a deal isn't likely is because, though there is a consensus among Iraqi leaders of the necessity for a post-2011 U.S. military presence, State Department lawyers determined that the immunity is necessary and can only be ensured if the Iraqi parliament formally endorsed it.
That's impossible for an Iraqi legislature that is not strong enough to publicly support what many Iraqis will view as an extension of the American occupation, Mardini said, and the Obama administration won't budge from this condition.
"That's the red line for the U.S., and unfortunately that's the red line for the Iraqis as well," he said. "Now the talk has gone to a new phase where it doesn't seem that we're going to get the immunities that are needed, and that's a deal breaker for the U.S."
The Iraqi parliament is actually on holiday right now and returns to work Nov. 20. Upon returning, its next adjournment will be Dec. 5, so that constitutes the window of opportunity for a measure to offer immunity. But nobody thinks that is likely.
The Iraqi government has always wanted the immunity to be granted through a government-to- government memorandum of understanding. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Al-Masar television station on Monday, "The immunity we had said is not possible, and from the beginning we have said that it can't get the approval from the parliament."
Officially, the U.S.-Iraq bilateral negotiations are led by U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey and Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. But the key interlocutor on the immunity issue is Brett McGurk, who served on the National Security Council during the Bush and Obama administrations and was brought back in by Obama to renegotiate the Bush-era agreements.
For observers like Mardini, the entire episode is symbolic of the Iraqi government's fragility and its inability to make decisions, as well as of the Obama administration's failure to adequately transition from a military to a diplomatic strategy in Iraq.
"The Obama administration came into office with the wrong mindset in Iraq. From the get-go, it was a hands-off diplomatic approach," he said. "We had all our eggs in the military and security baskets, and when that's gone, there won't be much left to sustain. The reality on the ground is that the U.S. is at risk of losing its influence in Iraq."
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) lifted a longstanding secret hold on Sung Kim, the nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea, only minutes before the South Korean president was set to speak to a joint session of Congress. The Senate confirmed Kim just now.
"Jon Kyl is holding up Sung Kim and he won't budge," Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) told The Cable only two hours ago, over a drink just before President Lee Myung-bak was honored in a lunch with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joseph Biden.
Several administration officials at the lunch told The Cable that after weeks of frustration, Kyl's office had finally agreed to receive a briefing on North Korea policy from State Department officials, which took place yesterday on Capitol Hill. Officials were working hard to convince Kyl's staff to allow the Kim nomination to go through in conjunction with Lee's visit and as part of this week's celebration of the U.S.-South Korean relationship.
There were various accounts of what exactly Kyl wanted from the administration in exchange for lifting the hold on Kim. Some administration officials said Kyl was requesting a series of letters that defined the administration's engagement with North Korea and made pledges to limit that engagement.
One official said that Kyl's demands seemed to change over time, but centered around assurances that the United States would not continue to meet with the North Koreans. A second U.S.-North Korea meeting is expected to be announced soon and would probably take place in a third country, such as Sweden.
Regardless, before Kyl lifted his hold, administration officials expressed frustration and embarrassment that they had not been able to push through Kim's confirmation. "It's a disgrace," one official at the lunch told The Cable.
"Koreans take this kind of thing very seriously," said another U.S. official, who happened to be of Korean descent.
The lunch itself was an elegant affair in the ornate Benjamin Franklin room on the State Department's 8th floor.
The appetizer was a roasted tomato, avocado, quinoa tower with pistachio mint pesto, fennel, caper dressing. For the entrée we had lemongrass sesame chicken with ginger-tamarind sauce, carrot-ginger puree, broccolini, and pearl onions. Dessert was a warm chocolate tart with milk chocolate mousse and malted milk ice cream.
Clinton's opening remarks praised the passage of the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement last night and said the pact will "spur economic growth, bringing our nations even closer together," and is "another clear example of the United States' commitment to the Asia Pacific region."
"We are a resident military, diplomatic and economic power and we are in Asia to stay," she said, reprising the themes in her Foreign Policy article to applause.
Biden spoke next and talked about how Lee's nickname was "the bulldozer," which he earned early in his career when he dismantled a bulldozer to learn how to build one and make it work better
"I wondered how in the Lord's name you got that nickname," Biden said, noting that Lee doesn't look like an NFL linebacker. But, Biden said, "his persistence exceeds any linebacker who ever hit me."
Lee began his remarks by pointing out that that the bulldozer he took apart was made by Caterpillar, a not-so-subtle gesture to the crowd, which included dozens of U.S. and South Korean business executives.
Administration officials in attendance included Deputy Secretary Tom Nides, Undersecretary Wendy Sherman, Counselor Harold Koh, USAID Administrator Raj Shah, CIA Director David Petraeus, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary Esther Brimmer, NSC Senior Director Gary Samore, DNI's Joe DeTrani, and Sung Kim himself.
Other notables at the lunch included Lugar, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), former NSC Senior Director Jeff Bader, former NSC Director Victor Cha, former North Korea Special Envoy Jack Pritchard, and former NSC Director Chuck Jones.
Your humble Cable guy rode the elevator with actor Ken Jeong, who flew in for the event from Los Angeles with his father. Jeong told us there is a third installment of the movie The Hangover in the works, but claimed he didn't have any plot details.
Obama and Lee had a private dinner Wednesday evening at Woo Lae Oak, a Korean restaurant in Tyson's Corner, VA. Tomorrow, they will travel to Detroit to visit a General Motors plant.
Read President Lee's speech to Congress here.
The Obama administration is cautiously optimistic about the prospect of reengagement with Burma, and the State Department is busily preparing a host of new rewards for the ruling junta if and when their promises of reform ever become a reality.
"We're going to meet their action with action," Derek Mitchell, the new special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, told The New York Times. "If they take steps, we will take steps to demonstrate that we are supportive of the path to reform."
But is Burma actually on the path to reform? The main pieces of evidence that change is afoot are that the new government, led by President Thein Sein, paused construction of a huge dam being built with China, which would have displaced thousands and wrecked the local environment, released 220 prisoners, and promised to release thousands more. But those changes alone aren't going to convince anyone in the administration -- or Congress, for that matter -- that the government is really committed to wholesale reform.
While the Obama administration sees some signs of change in Burma, it has no idea why they are occurring and has communicated that the United States will only ease sanctions after Burmese reforms. Administration officials are also trying their best to be clear eyed about the possibility that the junta is only trying to appease the international community, and has no intention of instituting real, actual change.
The Cable sat down with a senior State Department official to flesh out the administration's new approach to Burma, and gauge whether the Obama team really thinks that the Burmese junta is changing its tune.The official said that State has actually taken several steps in planning exactly what the United States is prepared to do if and when the junta takes steps to increase democracy and respect for human rights.
"We're far along," said the State Department official. "We're thinking about it very actively and we have some ideas of things we might do if we see the concrete steps."
The administration's strategy is to focus on steps the administration can take without needing to go through Congress, which is always skeptical of the Junta and never eager to loosen sanctions. For example, a ban on Burmese imports was implemented through a legislative maneuver, and would therefore need congressional action to remove. A ban on investment in Burma, however, was made by executive order, so the administration could remove that on its own.
"We would be consulting with Congress on the ideas that we have," the official said. "You can't have a perfect roadmap because there are many different scenarios to their actions and we'll calibrate it accordingly. So that's the art rather than the science to all of this."
Banking sanctions on Burma were authorized through Congress, but the sanctions placed on individual Burmese officials are an executive prerogative, so the administration could remove holds on specific Burmese officials who make positive steps.
The administration is still grappling with what it can do about removing restrictions on lending to Burma by international financial institutions, a key aspiration of the Burmese government. The New York Times reported that the administration is "considering waiving some restrictions on trade and financial assistance and lifting prohibitions on assistance by global financial institutions, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund."
We're told that the administration isn't quite there yet. Rather, officials are conducting an assessment of the conditions on the ground as to what would be needed as a precursor to considering waiving restrictions. For close observers of the Burma issue, that's a small but important distinction.
The administration is also being careful not to get ahead of reformers on the ground, specifically Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
The official noted that the administration has already provided some carrots to the Burmese. It invited Burma to be an observer in the Lower Mekong Initiative, which is the U.S. effort to deepen ties with certain Southeast Asian countries. It eased travel restrictions on Burmese officials so that Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin could come to Washington last month and visit the State Department.
There is a short and clear list of things the Obama administration has told junta leaders would constitute action deserving of reciprocal action on the part of the United States. They are to release political prisoners, amend the political party law to allow Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party to run in the next elections, and stop violence against ethnic minorities in Burma's rural areas.
The official said that, despite a feeling of political change in the urban areas of Burma, government violence against civilians near Burma's borders is actually getting worse. And there is still the unresolved issue of Burma's relationship with North Korea, which may include missile transfers and nuclear weapons cooperation.
"The ceasefires have been violated and there is continued military aggression and credible reports of abuses, including against women and children, that come out, which is typical of the past in Burma," the official said.
And what if the Burmese don't actually reform or even backslide on their progress? Is the administration willing to use the sticks -- including additional sanctions?
"We would look at everything.... It's fair to say we would be looking at that if things reverse," the official said.
Special Representative Mitchell's office, created in this year, is made up of just him and one assistant. He sits inside the offices of the East Asian and Pacific Bureau at State, but he reports directly up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and has responsibility for coordinating the entire interagency policy on Burma.
Burma experts believe the new office is useful, and see Mitchell as the right man for the job. But Burma watchers are also wary that the cautious optimism of the administration doesn't turn into naiveté.
"There's a lot of hype right now about everything is changing in Burma," said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "There's always a bureaucratic impulse to believe that positive change is happening in situations where a lot of U.S. diplomatic effort has been expended."
"That's the danger that there's so much positive rhetoric out there that the Burmese will think, aha, we don't actually have to do these things, all we have to do is talk about them," Malinowski said.
The State Department official said the administration was well aware of that risk, and was making sure the Burmese knew that they would have to implement real reforms to renew their relationship with the United States.
"I think [Burmese leaders] recognize that folks are waiting and see what's going to happen. People are restraining themselves from assuming that individual moves are somehow representative of something fundamentally different," the official said.
The other main administration officials involved in U.S. Burma policy are Adam Szubin, director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, Senior Director Dan Russel and Director Colin Willet in the NSC's Asia team, NSC's Senior Director Samantha Power on human rights, East Asia Pacific Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell and Deputy Assistant Secretary Joe Yun, and Southeast Asia Office Director Patrick Murphy at State.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today that the State Department is firmly opposed to the U.N. reform bill being marked up on Thursday by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), and promised to recommend to President Barack Obama that he veto the legislation.
"This bill mandates actions that would severely limit the United States' participation in the United Nations, damaging longstanding treaty commitments under the United Nations Charter and gravely harming U.S. national interests, those of our allies, and the security of Americans at home and abroad," Clinton wrote in a letter today sent to Ros-Lehtinen and her Democratic counterpart Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA).
"At a time when we are all expected to do more with less, this bill would gravely diminish our ability to burden share with other nations, defray costs, and enhance the impact of our own limited resources," Clinton wrote. "This bill also represents a dangerous retreat from the longstanding, bipartisan focus of the United States on constructive engagement with the United Nations to galvanize collective action to tackle urgent security problems."
The bill, introduced by Ros-Lehtinen in August, would shift U.S. contributions to the United Nations to a "voluntary basis," overhauling the compulsory assessed fees system that is in place now. If the United Nations doesn't receive 80 percent of its money from voluntary contributions, the bill would then require the United State to cut its contribution by 50 percent.
The bill would also halt new U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping missions until reforms are implemented, and institute a new regime of reporting requirements and auditing powers for examining U.S. contributions to the United Nations.
It would also punish any U.N. organization that goes along with the Palestinian statehood drive, withhold funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which aids Palestinian refugees, call for the United States to lead a high-level U.N. effort for "the revocation and repudiation" of the Goldstone Report, and pull the United States out of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which commissioned the Goldstone Report and has historically been used as a platform to criticize Israel.
Ros-Lehtinen held a press conference in September to state that she was not "bashing" the United Nations. Poster-sized photos of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and posters of deposed Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi at the U.N. speaker's podium were spread around the press conference.
Berman told The Cable in September that the bill was "radical" and has no chance of becoming law. Politico reported today that Ros-Lehtinen is seeking a floor vote for her bill, but as of yet none has been scheduled.
The U.N. Foundation released a poll today that found an overwhelmingly majority of Americans surveyed support U.S. involvement in the United Nations and a majority want the United States to fully meet its financial obligations to U.N. organizations.
"At a very high level, Americans really do not want something as a matter of American public policy that would either undermine the United Nations as an institution going forward or that would undermine America's ability to play a leadership role within the United Nations," Geoffrey Garin, president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, said in a Wednesday conference call regarding the poll. "On that point, the research is quite clear."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.