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."
Top officials in the State Department are going to extensive lengths to coordinate international pressure on Iran in the wake of the alleged assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir, although it remains unclear exactly what the Obama administration's next retaliatory steps might be.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Deputy Secretary Bill Burns have been calling leaders around the world to discuss the indictment against a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen and an Iranian member of the notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps al-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), which alleges that they hatched an elaborate plan to kill Jubeir by bombing a restaurant in Washington, possibly Café Milano in Georgetown.
Clinton has personally spoken with Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal al-Saud, her Mexican counterpart Patricia Espinosa, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and will be making several more calls today. Burns hosted a meeting of dozens of foreign diplomats this morning at the State Department on the plot, urging foreign ambassadors to convey a message back to their capitals that the United States is seeking more international pressure and condemnation of Iran.
Clinton and Burns met Wednesday morning with the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, Livia Leu Agosti. Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran through their embassy there because the U.S. and Iran have no formal diplomatic relations. The meeting was previously scheduled, but the focus was switched to discuss the bomb plot.
The State Department also sent a message to all U.S. ambassadors and chiefs of mission around the world directing them to meet with officials in their host countries to brief them on the situation and encourage them to aid the United States in increasing pressure on the Iranian government.
The administration sent briefers to talk to congressional staffers in a classified setting today, and Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman will testify tomorrow in an open hearing that is now expected to focus on the plot.
The State Department is also offering to send briefing teams to any embassy in Washington that wants more detailed information about the plot.
In New York, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice is holding individual meetings will all 14 other countries on the U.N. Security Council on the issue today and tomorrow.
"We are looking for countries to join us in increasing the political and the economic pressure on Iran," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at today's briefing. "We believe that all countries should look hard at how they can tighten sanctions, how they can enforce sanctions and whether sanctions are well-enforced to the limits of their own national law."
Iran's permanent representative to the U.N. Mohammad Khazaee sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon denying any role in the plot and stating that, "Iran has always condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations."
The State Department has made no decisions on whether to seek formal U.N. action against Iran, such as a Security Council resolution or presidential statement, Nuland said, and she wouldn't comment on Sen. Mark Kirk's (R-IL) demand that the administration sanction the Central Bank of Iran, an idea supported by over 90 senators.
Nuland said the administration doesn't know why Iran decided to attempt such an attack, but she dismissed the notion that the plot was out of character for the Iranian government.
"You know, Iran has a long history of using cut-outs. It also has some clumsy efforts in its past. I can't speak to what they were thinking when they planned this, but our concern is that it appears to be an escalation in tactics, and a dangerous one," she said.
Clinton spoke about the plot on Wednesday morning during remarks at the Center for American Progress.
"This plot, very fortunately disrupted by the excellent work of our law enforcement and intelligence professionals, was a flagrant violation of international and U.S. law, and a dangerous escalation of the Iranian government's long-standing use of political violence and sponsorship of terrorism.... This kind of reckless act undermines international norms and the international system," she said.
"Iran must be held accountable for its actions....We will work closely with our international partners to increase Iran's isolation and the pressure on its government, and we call upon other nations to join us in condemning this threat to international peace and security."
The FBI arrested and charged Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, 47, a resident of Leesburg, VA, for spying on Syrian-American protesters in the Washington area on behalf of the Syrian government.
The Justice Department announced the arrest and charges in a Wednesday press release, alleging that Soueid was involved "in a conspiracy to collect video and audio recordings and other information about individuals in the United States and Syria who were protesting the government of Syria and to provide these materials to Syrian intelligence agencies in order to silence, intimidate and potentially harm the protestors."
The Syrian government has vehemently denied the accusation that it is gathering information on protesting Syrian-Americans and punishing their families back in Syria. But last month, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told The Cable that he had evidence of multiple family members of Syrian-American protesters being rounded up and tortured by the Syrian regime.
Soueid, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was arrested on Tuesday and will appear before a judge this afternoon. He is charged with conspiring to act and acting as an agent of the Syrian government in the United States without notifying the attorney general, as required by law; two counts of providing false statements on a firearms purchase form; and two counts of providing false statements to federal law enforcement.
The indictment charges Soueid with making video and audio recordings of Syrian-American protesters, including personal conversations with them, and providing them to the Syrian intelligence services. He also provided protesters' phone numbers and e-mail addresses and also gave that information to officials at the Syrian embassy in Washington, the indictment alleges.
In June, according to the indictment, the Syrian government paid for Soueid to travel to Syria, where he met with Syrian officials and also directly with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In July, he bought a Baretta pistol but lied about his address on the registration forms. In August, he was interviewed by the FBI and allegedly lied about his activities.
If convicted on all counts, he could face a maximum of 40 years in prison.
"Spying for another country is a serious threat to our national security, especially when it threatens the ability of U.S. citizens to engage in political speech within our own borders," said Neil MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Mike McFaul, the National Security Council senior director for Russia, will testify before senators this afternoon and say that that the Obama administration's "reset" policy with Russia is working and that Congress must terminate an antiquated law that prevents full and normalized trade relations with Moscow.
McFaul is nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Moscow. Although several GOP senators have serious concerns about the reset policy and are critical of what they see as Obama's concessions to Russia, McFaul is expected to be confirmed. In his testimony this afternoon before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he will argue for the repeal of what's known as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a 1974 legal provision that punished the Soviet Union for restricting Jewish emigration, and which continues to prevent the United States from granting Russia permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status.
"In order for U.S. businesses, farmers and workers to receive the maximum benefit from Russia's WTO accession ... we will need to give the same unconditional permanent normal trading relations treatment to Russia's goods that we provide to those of all other WTO members," McFaul will say in his opening statement, obtained in advance by The Cable. "That commitment requires us to terminate the application of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and extend permanent normal trading relations to Russia."
WTO membership for Russia is a key goal of Obama's reset policy and the administration has been working hard behind the scenes to help Moscow finalize its bid. But several senior Republican lawmakers want to keep Jackson-Vanik in place to keep the pressure on Russia and prevent further backsliding on democratization, human rights, and respect for the rule of law.
McFaul will testify that the administration wants to terminate Jackson-Vanik before Russia joins WTO. Russia could win membership as early as December, if they are able to strike a deal with Georgia. The WTO typically only accepts new members by consensus. The agreement between the two nations would likely have to do with international customs monitoring along the Russia-Georgia border, which is currently run by the Russian military. The Obama administration said it's not involved in the Russia-Georgia negotiations, but at other times officials have admitted that it is.
Either way, it's unclear how the administration plans to convince intransigent GOP leaders, such as House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), to abandon their opposition to granting Russia PNTR status, much less before December.
But the Obama administration has decided to make the termination of Jackson-Vanik a jobs issue, thus placing the GOP in the position of being against American workers.
"Four decades after Jackson-Vanik was passed, a vote to grant Russia PNTR is a vote to help our economy and create jobs," McFaul will say. "At a time when we need to increase exports to preserve and create American jobs, we cannot afford to put our farmers, manufacturers, and workers at a disadvantage when competing against other WTO members for market share in Russia."
Support in both parties is strong for McFaul's ambassador nomination, despite that he is a key architect of the reset policy that many Republicans oppose. McFaul has a long track record as a democracy advocate, and unlike most other top administration officials, he has maintained close and longstanding relationships with leaders on the GOP side of the aisle.
McFaul often engages with a wide range of people in the broader policy community, meets with administration critics and even meets with representatives from countries he doesn't cover, such as European officials who have an interest in U.S.-Russia relations.
McFaul's attitude and relationships have bought him a measure of credibility and support from the GOP. Several typically hawkish Russia experts have been lobbying GOP senators on behalf of McFaul's nomination. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), had threatened to hold the nomination, but now that hold is not expected to materialize.
"People have a lot of respect for Mike. Everybody knows that is a very passionate supporter of democracy," said Bob Kagan, a Brookings Institution scholar who co-authored a Washington Post op-ed in support of the nomination with Freedom House's David Kramer. "He's got a long reputation, good contacts, and he's part of a larger pro-democracy community, so the opposition in Russia will feel like it has somebody they can talk to, which isn't always the case."
The Obama administration must take stronger steps than just sanctioning five Iranian individuals, as it announced today, in response to the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy in Washington, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told The Cable.
"That's just charging the individuals involved," Kirk said in a Tuesday afternoon interview, emphasizing that the Iranian government should be held responsible for the plot directly. "What the administration should do is prepare to move against Bank Markazi [Iran's Central Bank] in response to the bomb plot."
Kirk took to the floor of the Senate on Tuesday to call on the Federal Reserve and the EU Central Bank to ban all transactions with Iran's central bank, which Kirk said would have the effect of crippling the value of Iran's currency.
"Their currency would become like North Korea's currency," Kirk said, arguing that the move would constitute a proportional and appropriate response to the Iranian government's involvement in the plot.
The administration did not brief Congress before announcing the plot in a press conference earlier today, but Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen is set to brief members of the Banking Committee tomorrow in private and then in public on Thursday.
Members will be pressing Cohen on what further steps will be taken to punish Iran for the plot in addition to what was announced today. By tomorrow, senators will put forward several more requests for specific actions against Iran, Kirk said.
"We're looking at a range of policies, but no military action, because the plot was foiled," Kirk said. "The level of anger in Congress tonight is only a fraction of what it will be tomorrow morning."
Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) also called for additional measures against Iran in a speech on the Senate floor today. "We need to heighten the sanctions on Iran and make it clear that this type of action will not be countenanced," he said.
In August, more than 90 senators signed a letter to President Barack Obama, written by Kirk and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), which stated, "The time has come to impose crippling sanctions on Iran's financial system by cutting off the Central Bank of Iran. There is strong bipartisan support in Congress for the imposition of sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke vaguely about possible future measures against Iran in response to the plot in a short comment onTuesday afternoon.
"We will be consulting with our friends and partners around the world about how we can send a strong message that this kind of action, which violates international norms, must be ended," she said. "And other areas where we can cooperate more closely in order to send a strong message to Iran and other actions to isolate it from the international community will also be considered."
But Clinton got a bit more specific about the State Department's behind the scenes outreach regarding the plot in a Tuesday interview with the AP.
"We are actively engaged in a very concerted diplomatic outreach to many capitals, to the U.N. in New York, to not only to explain what happened so we can try to pre-empt any efforts by Iran to be successful in what would be their denial and their efforts to try to deflect responsibility but so that we also enlist more countries in working together against what is becoming a clearer and clearer threat" from Iran, Clinton said.
UPDATE: Late Tuesday evening, the State Department issued a new worldwide travel alert in response to the assassination plot.
"The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens of the
potential for anti-U.S. actions following the disruption of a plot,
linked to Iran, to commit a significant terrorist act in the United
States," it stated. "The U.S. government assesses that this Iranian-backed
plan to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador may indicate a more aggressive
focus by the Iranian Government on terrorist activity against diplomats
from certain countries, to include possible attacks in the United
The Obama administration is scrambling right now to find a way around the fact that existing U.S. law could force the United States to stop participating in the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO if the Palestinians are given member state status, setting a precedent that could repeat itself in a host of other U.N. organizations.
The administration is contending with a 1994 law (P.L. 103-236, Title IV), which would bar U.S. contributions "to any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood."
Another law (P.L. 101-246, Title IV), from 1990, states that, "No funds authorized to be appropriated by this act or any other act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states."
The Palestinians cleared a hurdle this week when the UNESCO executive board approved their bid to join the organization, sending the matter to a vote by UNESCO's 193-nation General Conference. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized UNESCO on Wednesday for taking up the issue.
"I think that that is a very odd procedure indeed and would urge the governing body of UNESCO to think again before proceeding with that vote," Clinton told reporters in the Dominican Republic.
She acknowledged the "strong legislative prohibition that prevents the United States from funding organizations that jump the gun, so to speak, in recognizing entities before they are fully ready for such recognition."
The U.S. has not yet paid their bills on UNESCO for 2011, about $80 million, which is 22 percent of UNESCO's budget. If the law is triggered and the U.S. does not pay in 2012, the U.S. would lose its vote in the organization. Plus, UNESCO officials have told the U.S. that if U.S. funds are not expected over the next two years, they may have to initiate massive layoffs beginning in January to account for the shortfall in funds.
Palestinian membership in UNESCO would also grant them immediate membership in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The U.S. would have to stop contributing to WIPO but America is not a member of UNIDO.
We're told that the State Department is currently having their attorneys draft a legal opinion on how U.S. laws would affect U.S. participations in U.N. bodies that grant the Palestinians member state status. Their ruling will have ramifications not only for UNESCO, but for all other U.N. specialized agencies that the PLO is expected to submit their application to, such as the IAEA, WTO, WHO, World Bank, and others.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that the administration was "still working" on what the legislative triggers regarding funding would mean. But a State Department official said that the administration has not been able to find a way around the law.
"We have a suicide vest padlocked around our torso and the Palestinians have the remote control," the State Department official said. "They get to decide whether they blow us up or not. It's 100 percent up to them."
Meanwhile, Congress is ratcheting up its own involvement on the issue. Later today, 10 House appropriators will call on UNESCO not to move forward with consideration of Palestinian membership, in a letter to UNESCO Executive Director Irina Bokova obtained by The Cable.
"We... respectfully request that you do everything in your power to ensure that the Palestine Liberation Organization's application to become a Member State does not come before the UNESCO General Conference," states the letter, prepared by the office of Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ). "Any recognition of Palestine as a Member State would not only jeopardize the hope for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but would endanger the United States' contribution to UNESCO."
Signatories of the letter include the heads of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), Jerry Lewis (R-CA), Tom Cole (R-OK), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), Steve Austria (R-IL), Charles Dent (R-PA), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), and Adam Schiff (D-CA).
One senior Republican staffer pointed out the irony that it was President George W. Bush who brought the United States back into UNESCO, and now the United States might be forced to leave the organization by Obama -- a president who came to office promising to reverse what he argued was Bush's tendency to ignore the international community.
"Remember, we joined UNESCO in part because we needed them to help de-radicalize textbooks particularly in the Muslim world after 9/11 and as a platform to counter expanding anti-American attitudes in academia," the staffer said "And now, by de-funding UNESCO, we lose all the leverage we had gained."
President Obama opined on Chinese currency legislation, Pakistani double dealing, and the European debt crisis during his Thursday morning press conference, which was supposed to focus on his jobs bill. Here are the foreign policy highlights of his remarks.
On Chinese currency manipulation:
Obviously we've been seeing a remarkable transformation of China over the last two decades, and it's helped to lift millions of people out of poverty in China. We have stabilized our relationship with China in a healthy way. But what is also true is that China has been very aggressive in gaming the trading system to its advantage and to the disadvantage of other countries, particularly the United States. And I have said that publicly but I've also said it privately to Chinese leaders.
And currency manipulation is one example of it, or at least intervening in the currency markets in ways that have led their currency to be valued lower than the market would normally dictate. And that makes their exports cheaper and that makes our exports to them more expensive. So we've seen some improvement, some slight appreciation over the last year, but it's not enough.
It's not just currency, though. We've also seen, for example, you know, intellectual property, technologies that were created by U.S. companies with a lot of investment, a lot of up-front capital, taken, not protected properly, by Chinese firms. And we've pushed China on that issue as well. Ultimately, I think that you can have a win-win trading relationship with China. I'm very pleased that we're going to be able to potentially get a trade deal with South Korea. But I believe what I think most Americans believe, which is trade is great as long as everybody is playing by the same rules.
On the legislation to penalize currently manipulation currently being considered by Congress:
My main concern -- and I've expressed this to Senator Schumer -- is whatever tools we put in place, let's make sure that these are tools that can actually work, that they're consistent with our international treaties and obligations. I don't want a situation where we're just passing laws that are symbolic, knowing that they're probably not going to be upheld by the World Trade Organization for example, and then suddenly U.S. companies are subject to a whole bunch of sanctions. We've got a -- I think we've got a strong case to make, but we've just got to make sure that we do it in a way that's going to be effective.
Last point is, my administration has actually been more aggressive than any in recent years in going after some of these practices. We've brought very aggressive enforcement actions against China for violations in the tire case for example, where it's been upheld by the World Trade Organization that they were engaging in unfair trading practices, and that's given companies here in the United States a lot of relief.
So, you know, my overall goal is, I believe U.S. companies, U.S. workers, we can compete with anybody in the world. I think we -- we can make the best products. And a huge part of us winning the future, a huge part of rebuilding this economy on a firm basis -- that's not just reliant on, you know, maxed-out credit cards and a housing bubble and financial speculation, but is -- is dependent on us making things and selling things -- I am absolutely confident that we can win that competition. But in order to do it, we've got to make sure that we're aggressive in looking out for the interests of American workers and American businesses, and that everybody's playing by the same rules, and that we're not getting -- getting cheated in the process.
On Pakistan's hedging strategy:
With respect to Pakistan, I have said that my number-one goal is to make sure that al-Qaida cannot attack the U.S. homeland and cannot affect U.S. interests around the world. And we have done an outstanding job, I think, in going after directly al-Qaida in this border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. We could not have been as successful as we have been without the cooperation of the Pakistan government. And so on a whole range of issues, they have been an effective partner with us.
What is also true is that our goal of being able to transition out of Afghanistan and leave a stable government behind -- one that is independent, one that is respectful of human rights, one that is democratic -- that Pakistan I think has been more ambivalent about some of our goals there. And you know, I think that they have hedged their bets in terms of what Afghanistan would look like, and part of hedging their bets is having interactions with some of the unsavory characters who they think might end up regaining power in Afghanistan after coalition forces have left.
What we've tried to persuade Pakistan of is that it is in their interest to have a stable Afghanistan; that they should not be feeling threatened by a stable, independent Afghanistan. We've tried to get the conversations between Afghans and Pakistans (sic) going more effectively than they have been in the past. But we've still got more work to do. And there is no doubt that there's some connections that the Pakistani military and intelligence services have with certain individuals that we find trouble (sic). And I've said that publicly and I've said it privately to Pakistani officials as well.
On the Pakistan-India relationship:
[The Pakistanis] see their security interests threatened by an independent Afghanistan, in part because they think it will ally itself to India, and Pakistan still considers India their mortal enemy. Part of what we want to do is actually get Pakistan to realize that a peaceful approach towards India would be in everybody's interests and would help Pakistan actually develop -- because one of the biggest problems we have in Pakistan right now is poverty, illiteracy, a lack of development, you know, civil institutions that aren't strong enough to deliver for the Pakistani people. And in that environment you've seen extremism grow. You've seen militancy grow that doesn't just threaten our efforts in Afghanistan but also threatens the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people as well.
So trying to get that reorientation is something that we're continuing to work on. It's -- it's not easy.
On cutting off aid to Pakistan:
You know, we will constantly evaluate our relationship with Pakistan, based on, is overall this helping to protect Americans and our interests? We have a great desire to help the Pakistani people strengthen their own society and their own government. And so, you know, I'd be hesitant to punish, you know, aid for flood victims in Pakistan because of poor decisions by their intelligence services. But there's no doubt that, you know, we're not going to feel comfortable with a long-term strategic relationship with Pakistan if we don't think that they're mindful of our interests as well.
On the European debt crisis:
The biggest headwind the American economy is facing right now is uncertainty about Europe, because it is affecting global markets. The slow-down that we're seeing is not just happening here in the United States: It's happening everywhere. Even in some of the emerging markets like China you're seeing greater caution, less investment, deep concern.
I speak frequently with Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy. They are mindful of these challenges. I think they want to act to prevent a sovereign debt crisis from spinning out of control, or seeing the potential breakup of the euro. I think they're very committed to the European project. But their politics is tough because, essentially, they've got to get agreement with not only their own parliaments, they've got to get agreement with 20 parliaments, or 24 parliaments, or 27 parliaments. And engineering that kind of coordinated action is very difficult.
You know, but what I've been seeing over the last month is a recognition by European leaders of the urgency of the situation. And nobody's, obviously, going to be affected more than they will be if the situation there spins out of control. So I'm confident that they want to get this done. I think there are some technical issues that they're working on in terms of how they get a big enough -- how do they get enough fire power to let the markets know that they're going to be standing behind euro members whose -- you know, who may be in a weaker position. But they've got to act fast.
And we've got a G-20 meeting coming up in November. My strong hope is that by the time of that G-20 meeting, that they have a very clear, concrete plan of action that is sufficient to the task.
The Cable reported yesterday that President Barack Obama waived penalties on several countries that recruit child soldiers for the second year in a row. Today, lawmakers moved to ensure that the administration won't keep funding governments that use child soldiers next year.
The administration waived penalties mandated under the Child Soldiers Protection Act (CSPA) against Yemen, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The administration didn't provide a justification for not penalizing South Sudan, because the 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which was released on June 27 and triggers the penalties, names "Sudan," not "South Sudan," as an abuser. South Sudan was declared independent on July 9, 12 days after the report came out.
"South Sudan wasn't a country during the reporting period and isn't subject to the CSPA; there are no penalties to waive under the law," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.
That explanation struck several congressional aides and human rights activists we spoke with today as too clever by half. After all, the TIP report was referring to use of child soldiers by the government of "Southern Sudan" and the Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which hasn't stopped the practice and will receive $100 million of U.S. taxpayers' money this year.
"They're using a legal and technical loophole to continue to build up partnership with a government that needs to be reminded how serious this problem is," said Sarah Margon, associate director for sustainable security and peace building at the Center for American Progress. "It's exactly how not to establish the message that they need to set up their government with full respect for human rights and transparency."
"At the time the TIP report came out, it was obvious South Sudan was going to be an independent country so any responsible person would have taken that into consideration," one senior House aide told The Cable. "Apart from the law, the White House still had discretion to address the issue as a policy matter and it chose not to condition any of the aid on the SPLA completing its demobilization of child soldiers."
The administration made the case that Chad has made sufficient progress on the child soldiers issue, and is no longer subject to penalties. "We've seen the government take concrete steps over the last year to implement policies and mechanisms to prohibit and prevent future government or government-supported use of child soldiers," Vietor said.
"The U.N.'s Chad Country Task Force has reported no verified cases of child soldiers in 2011, and Chad has put in place safeguards to prevent further use or recruitment of child soldiers. The president's reinstatement of assistance to Chad reflects this progress," he explained.
But several activists noted that the United Nations and State Department both kept Chad on their list of countries violating international standards for child recruitment this year, and that international monitors' limited access in Chad calls into question anybody's ability to verify whether the government has stopped using child soldiers.
Several aides and activists were angry at the administration for failing to adequately consult or even inform them of the waivers before they were announced. Administration officials briefed congressional staffers and NGO leaders yesterday, and journalists not at all.
"It also says something about the State Department's willingness to engage with civil society actors," said Margon. "It's a black mark on them in their ability to work with friends and allies on these issues. Why alienate the people who want to work with you on this stuff? It just doesn't make any sense."
Congress has no intention of letting this scenario play out again next year. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, successfully added an amendment to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act reauthorization bill today that would force the administration to give Congress 15 days notice before issuing waivers for the child-soldier penalties.
The amendment would also expand the law to include peacekeeping funds given to violator countries (such as Somalia), and force the White House to show that countries are making progress toward eliminating the use of child soldiers before receiving a waiver. Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and John Boozman (R-AR) have already introduced a companion measure in the Senate.
Not all Capitol Hill staffers were completely unsympathetic to the administration's arguments, however.
One Senate aide referred to the progress noted by the Obama administration in Chad and the partial cut of U.S. military assistance in the DRC as "welcome steps -- steps that might not have occurred without the force of the Child Soldier Prevention Act," noting that they "will require serious follow up attention."
But overall, the administration's roll out of the decision was panned by the NGO and human rights communities, which see the administration's action as undermining the intent of the legislation.
"At a time when Congress is locked in one of the most difficult budget battles I've ever seen, it is shameful that a portion of federal funding continues to help support governments who are abusing children," said Jesse Eaves, World Vision's policy advisor for children in crisis. "This is a very weak decision by an administration paralyzed with inaction. And the worst part is that thousands of children around the world -- not the politicians in the White House or the State Department -- are the ones who will suffer."
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Congress and the NGO community are gearing up to fight the Obama administration's plan to sell $53 million worth of weapons to Bahrain, which is proceeding on schedule despite that country's crackdown on protesters.
The State Department argued in its Sept. 14 notification to Congress that the proposed sale will contribute to U.S. national security "by helping to improve the security of a major non-NATO ally that has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East."
The administration is planning to sell Bahrain 44 armored, high-mobility Humvees and over 300 advanced missiles, 50 of which are bunker-buster missiles similar to those sold secretly to Israel in 2009.
"Bahrain will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense," the notification reads.
But the government of Bahrain, led by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has been engaged in a months-long struggle with a predominantly Shiite protest movement. Opposition groups claim that 30 protesters have been killed by the government and more than 1,000 have been arrested. The government also called in a Saudi-led force in March that included dozens of tanks to bolster their position, effectively putting the country on lockdown.
Independent organizations such as Human Rights Watch have reported that the Bahrain government has used brutal tactics, including using masked thugs to sweep up lawyers and other activists in nighttime raids. Today, the government announced new trials for 20 medics whose long jail sentences provoked outrage in the international community.
"In Bahrain, steps have been taken toward reform and accountability,
but more are required,"
President Obama said in his Sept. 21 speech at the U.N. "America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc - the Wifaq - to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people."
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.
Regardless, a growing group of lawmakers and non-governmental organizations are gearing up to oppose the State Department's plan to sell weapons to Bahrain. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) are circulating a resolution that would stop the sale from going through.
"Providing arms to a government that is actively committing human rights violations against peaceful protestors is at odds with United States foreign policy goals," Wyden told The Cable. "We should be promoting democracy and human rights in the region and not rewarding a regime that is jailing and in some cases killing those who choose to peacefully protest their government and anyone who supports them. This resolution will prevent the U.S. from providing the Kingdom of Bahrain with weaponry until they show a real commitment to respecting human rights."
"The Humvees are particularly worrisome for a regime that is quashing protests," said one Senate aide who works on the issue. "But the overall principle of selling arms to this regime as they use live ammunition to kill protesters is just awful and we're going to do what we can to try to stop it."
Other senior senators are just becoming aware of the issue, but their initial reactions are a mixture of concern and criticism of the Bahrain government.
"I'm cautious about empowering this regime now in Bahrain. The internal conflict in Bahrain needs to be settled," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Cable. "I'm not so sure I would go down that road right now [in terms of arms sales]."
"I didn't even we were doing that until you told me," Graham admitted, thanking your humble Cable guy for bringing the issue to his attention.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) also seemed conflicted about the idea of selling more weapons to Bahrain but declined to outright oppose the idea.
"I'm troubled by what's happened in Bahrain, but Bahrain has been a wonderful ally and our 5th Fleet there is critical to the security of the whole region," he told The Cable. "I'd be hesitant to cut off sales, but it is awkward now."
Senate Foreign Relations Middle East Subcommittee chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) also said he was concerned about the violence against protesters in Bahrain but didn't want to commit to a position about the arms sales either way.
"We're looking at it, because we want to do everything we can to hold a country like that to high standards," Casey told The Cable.
The big question is what Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) thinks. Kerry's committee has first crack at any resolution to oppose the sale, and the resolution's backers want his support. But -- despite Kerry's denials that he is seeking the secretary of state job -- he rarely picks fights with the White House in public. His office did not answer requests for comments on the topic.
Human Rights First, an international human rights organization, wrote an open letter to Kerry last month calling on him to oppose further arms sales to Bahrain.
"Stopping this arms sale to a country currently abusing the rights of its citizens is in step with your long record of opposition to arming tyrants," the letter states. "Arms sales to Bahrain at this time would contradict the United States' twin interests of regional stability and peaceful reform. If the United States aspires to be a global human rights leader... it should not reward the current repression with weapons."
The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) also drafted a letter to Congress, signed by a dozen organizations including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, urging Congress "to take immediate action to block a proposed arms sale to Bahrain until it ends abuses against peaceful protesters and takes meaningful steps toward political reform and accountability for recent and ongoing serious human rights violation."
Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy for POMED, told The Cable that the arms sale will have a devastating effect on U.S. credibility in the Arab world.
"The sale will unquestionably be perceived by both the government of Bahrain and those in the opposition as a green light for the government to continue its brutal repression," he said. "In the broader picture of the Arab Spring, this further erodes the credibility of U.S. rhetoric about democracy and human rights in the region."
UPDATE: Wyden introduced his resolution Thursday, a copy of which can be found here.
Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Dan Burton (R-IN) have started a new congressional caucus to increase engagement with Russia and to push for action to promote Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization.
Meeks and Burton, the chairs of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, started the Congressional Russia Caucus last month after returning from a trip to Moscow. They are the only two members of the caucus, just yet, but they're canvassing for new members now. They plan to build connections with Russian officials, increase legislative exchanges with the Russian Duma, and advocate for the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a 1974 U.S. law that prevents the United States from granting Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status.
"When you think about Russia, they are an important nation in an important part of the world. And we have to make sure we begin to work with them in a post-Cold War way," Meeks told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday.
Meeks said he has been coordinating with the Obama administration, which is supporting Russia's WTO bid as part of its overall effort to reset relations with Russia.
"The administration was very appreciative of us starting this caucus; they thought it was a good idea. They said they looked forward to working with us," Meeks said.
Both Meeks and Burton said they were encouraged to start the caucus after meeting with American businessmen and members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow. Both denied they had benefited financially as a result of their efforts on behalf of the U.S.-Russia relationship.
"We want to engage Russians on economics and trade affairs," Burton said in a Tuesday interview with The Cable. Regarding the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, Burton said, "That's something that the Congress has to do for the U.S. to get all the benefits of Russia joining the WTO. If that doesn't happen, Russia would be entitled to all its benefits [as a WTO member] but the U.S. would be disadvantaged."
Russia's accession to the WTO and the repeal of Jackson-Vanik "would be good for Russia and the world," Burton said.
Burton's position on Russian accession to the WTO and Jackson-Vanik puts him in direct opposition to his own committee chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who said in July that repeal of Jackson-Vanik was impossible. And she's no fan of Russia's once-and-future president, Vladimir Putin.
"Putin's present-day Russia is taking on a more Stalin-era appearance every day," Ros-Lehtinen said in July. "The administration must end its string of concessions to the regime in Moscow, which have not resulted in increased cooperation with the U.S. or an improvement in Russia's human rights record."
Meeks and Burton both also said that they could use the caucus to press Russia toward more progress on democratization, human rights, and respect for the rule of law.
"We do care about those things. What we're going to do is open a dialogue on all these things so we can move in the right direction," Burton said.
Honduran President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo will meet President Barack Obama today to renew the friendship between the two countries, and ask for help in fighting Honduras's drug war. The meeting comes two years after the Obama administration sided against the process that brought Lobo to power, before reversing itself and embracing the Lobo presidency.
Lobo sat down for an interview with The Cable on Tuesday to talk about his country's 2009 political crisis, the role of the United States in that drama, and the need for strong ties between Washington and Tegucigalpa, which he described as two like-minded democracies fighting together against drugs and for democracy.
"The United States is our most important foreign ally, it's our strongest relationship and it has been so historically," Lobo said. "That's the way it is and I'm sure it will continue to be so."
Back in 2009, the State Department sided strongly with former President Manuel Zelaya, who was seized by the military and taken out of Honduras in what some called a coup. Zelaya snuck back into Honduras in September 2009 and holed up in the Brazilian embassy while the Obama administration worked to restore him to power.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even met with Zelaya in Washington, suspended aid to Honduras, and revoked the visas of Honduran officials. Later, Honduras was cut off from Millennium Challenge Corporation assistance.
Eventually, it became apparent that the de facto regime in Tegucigalpa, led by Roberto Micheletti, was winning the internal struggle and that new elections would take place. The administration began shifting its position in October 2009 and finally threw Zelaya under the bus when Lobo won the election and Zelaya rejected a deal that would have returned him temporarily to power.
Zelaya hurt his case and alienated the Obama administration when he starting accusing "Israeli mercenaries" of poisoning him with mind-altering gas and radiation while he was inside the Brazilian embassy.
But that's all water under the bridge as far as Lobo is concerned.
"The Unites States has always supported democracy and the rule of law. Whether it is Zelaya, whether it is Lobo, this is what the United States has always looked for," Lobo said. "They always said that as soon as there are elections and the Hondurans elect the president, the situation with Honduras would be the same as it had always been, and this is the way it happened."
Most U.S. trade and assistance to Honduras has been restored, although they are still not able to receive grants from the MCC.
We asked Lobo if he forgave the Obama administration for sticking with Zelaya for so long and initially opposing the process that led to his election.
"They haven't done anything to us!" Lobo exclaimed. "The United States was the only country that maintained an ambassador in Honduras and was extremely helpful in eventually finding a path out of the crisis."
Lobo is meeting with a host of senior officials in addition to Obama, including Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Attorney General Eric Holder. He'll also hold meetings with leaders at the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Dialogue.
His main goal is to seek financial and technical assistance for Honduras's worsening problem with drug cartels, which have increasingly moved into Central America due to the crackdown in Mexico.
"[W]e need to have help to do more investigations and we need to seek reforms in the national police as well as in the armed forces," Lobo said. "We have a strong ally in the U.S. because this is the market, this is where the consumers are. We are basically on the corridor and this we cannot change. We also seek the United States to launch an effective fight against consumption."
On Tuesday morning, Lobo had breakfast with Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Marco Rubio (R-DL). DeMint was key in shifting U.S. policy away from Zelaya and traveled to Honduras in the middle of the crisis, against the State Department's objections, to meet with Zelaya's foes.
DeMint told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday that the Lobo government had made progress in repairing its relationships around the world but that more attention from the United States was needed.
"If we focus on Mexico and Columbia, the criminals move to places like Honduras," DeMint said. "They are a good friend and they are very pro-American and there aren't many pro-American countries left in the world."
The Obama administration is playing a word game regarding Taiwan's request for new F-16 fighter planes; it isn't selling Taiwan the planes -- but it won't rule it out either.
After the administration announced late last month its decision to offer Taiwan a $5.8 billion package of upgrades to its aging fleet of F-16 A/B model fighters, most observers assumed that meant the United States would not sell Taiwan the 66 new F-16 C/D model fighters it has requested. But two senior officials testified today that the sale of the new fighters is still on the table and they denied that China's objections played any part in their Taiwan arms sales decision making.
"We have not ruled out any future aircraft decisions. We understand Taiwan's interest in F-16 Cs and Ds, and this is under consideration," said Peter Lavoy, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, who testified at Tuesday's hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee along with Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Lavoy testified that the administration decided to sell the A/B fighter upgrades now because "it is an immediate priority," but committee ranking member Howard Berman (D-CA) pointed out that selling new planes to Taiwan might actually be quicker than upgrading the old planes. Lavoy didn't respond directly to that question.
Both Campbell and Lavoy argued that the upgrade package being offered to Taiwan would provide the same capability as new planes and would result in having more planes available, since Taiwan has 145 F-16 A/B fighters.
But several committee members pressed Campbell and Lavoy to explain why the administration didn't sell Taiwanese leaders the new fighter jets they clearly want, if in fact Chinese sensitivities were not an issue.
"They may live with the upgrade, but their clear preference is for F-16Cs and D's," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (R-VA).
"We know they interest in the C's and D's and we are considering that request," said Lavoy.
"I think what he means, Congressman, is that we've ruled nothing out," Campbell quickly chimed in.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) a decision on the sale of F-16 C/D fighters to Taiwan by Oct. 1, as part of a deal that saw Cornyn lift his hold on the confirmation of Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.
In an interview on Tuesday, Cornyn told The Cable that he doesn't think Clinton reneged on her promise because he doesn't believe that F-16 C/D sales to Taiwan are actually still under consideration.
"I think we got a decision and it was negative," Cornyn said. "They claimed the upgrades were sufficient but they aren't. I think that's a little attempt to distract from their mistaken policy. I think they are clearly afraid to antagonize China."
Campbell, however, emphasized that the Obama administration has offered more sales of weapons to Taiwan than any other administration, including a $6.4 billion arms package that was announced in January 2010. He also testified that the administration never consulted with or briefed the Chinese before announcing the most recent Taiwan arms sales decision and he said Chinese concerns had no bearing on administration thinking.
"I know why they would say that," Cornyn responded, with thick skepticism in his voice.
What a difference a year makes. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was confirmed by the Senate on Monday evening after serving under a recess appointment because the Senate would not confirm him the first time around.
It didn't take much to win the Senate's approval. All Ford had to do was get attacked by pro-regime thugs while attending a meeting of Syrian lawyers, attend a funeral of a Syrian activist right before it was attacked by Syrian government forces, and get his car pelted with eggs, tomatoes, concrete blocks, and iron bars as he was chased by a violent mob after visiting a Syrian politician.
In short, the Senate finally saw that Ford was more of an irritant to the Syrian regime than a concession to them, and so the GOP foreign policy brain trust reversed itself and supported his confirmation.
After Ford's latest run in with violent pro-regime Syrians, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the incident to make a push for his confirmation.
"Ambassador Ford has shown admirable courage putting himself on the line to bear witness to the situation on the ground in Syria. He is a vital advocate for the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people now under siege by the Asad regime," Clinton said Sept. 29. "I encourage the United States Senate to show our support for Ambassador Ford by confirming him as soon as possible, so he can continue, fully confirmed, his critical and courageous work."
White House spokesman Jay Carney piled on the same day.
"Day after day, Ambassador Ford puts himself at great personal risk to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," he said at the Sept. 29 briefing. "And I'd like to make this point: that we urge the Senate to show Ambassador Ford its support by confirming him and allowing his courageous work to continue."
Ford described the latest attack in his most recent Facebook post.
"Protesters threw concrete blocks at the windows and hit the cars with iron bars. One person jumped on the hood of the car, tried to kick in the windshield and then jumped on the roof. Another person held the roof railing and tried to break the car's side window. When the embassy car moved through the crowd, the man fell off the car," he wrote.
"Americans understand that we are seeing the ugly side of the Syrian regime which uses brutal force, repression and intimidation to stay in power."
The White House finally submitted three long-awaited free trade agreements to Congress today, and will now turn its focus to the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with the goal of finalizing a framework for the 8-country pact by the time the Asia Pacfic Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit convenes in Honolulu in November.
"The series of trade agreements I am submitting to Congress today will make it easier for American companies to sell their products in South Korea, Colombia, and Panama and provide a major boost to our exports," President Barack Obama said in a statement. "These agreements will support tens of thousands of jobs across the country for workers making products stamped with three proud words: Made in America."
The agreements were submitted to Congress this week because the Senate successfully passed a related bill implementing a Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which is designed to help workers impacted by the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). The House Rules Committee was working on that bill on Monday night; the full House is expected to pass it this week.
The FTAs are also expected to gain bipartisan support and pass in short order.
"These agreements will level the playing field for American businesses, including many in South Florida. The billions of dollars in increased sales that will result will enable these companies to create tens of thousands of jobs for hard-pressed Americans," House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said in a statement. "These agreements are also of great importance to our national security interests in Latin America and East Asia."
If and when these three FTAs pass, that will be the end of bilateral trade agreements for a while. A senior administration official told reporters on a conference call that the administration will then turn its focus to the TPP, a regional trade agreement currently being negotiated with Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.
"This president has a bias toward multilateralism," the senior administration official said. "The TPP would give us a critical foothold in the most dynamic market.... We will be working to try to get the bone structure of that substantially in place prior to President Obama hosting the APEC leaders in Honolulu."
"This is not the end of the Obama administration's trade policy," the official said, adding that the administration was open to other trade agreements but was not working on any other bilateral pacts as of now.
The senior administration official said that the three FTAs will result in more than $13 billion in exports each year and the creation of tens of thousands of jobs. Obama will host South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Washington and throw a state dinner in his honor later this month.
A fact sheet on the U.S.-Korea trade agreement is available here. A fact sheet on the U.S.-Panama trade agreement is available here. A fact sheet on the U.S.-Colombia Trade Agreement is available here.
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah is on a plane right now on the way to Kenya and Ethiopia, where he will be touring areas affected by the worst drought the region has seen in over six decades.
"I'm going to Kenya and Ethiopia to visit with heads of state and senior leadership as well as to pull together the humanitarian and NGO communities to assess progress on the challenges that the drought has brought to the Horn of Africa," Shah said in an interview with The Cable on his way to the airport.
He won't be going to Somalia, however, which has been ravaged by a famine that shows little sign of abating. Shah said there are good reasons why Ethiopia and Kenya are doing better than Somalia -- beyond the fact that the al-Shabab extremist group in Somalia is getting in the way of delivering aid.
"In Kenya and Ethiopia, because of constructive investments in protecting communities dependent on livestock, we know more than four and half million people stayed in their communities and have weathered this drought.... In Somalia the opposite has taken place," he said.
Shah said that more than 30,000 people have died, mostly children, due to Somalia's failure to prepare for and deal with the crisis, and the State Department estimates another 750,000 are at risk over the next four to six months, Shah said.
The United States has provided more than $640 million to date in response to the Horn of Africa crisis, including a new announcement of $42 million late last month.
The focus of this trip will be to recommend policy reforms in Kenya and Ethiopia to better handle the crisis. Those governments are taking some steps, such as ensuring the safe passage of aid and making sure refugees are accepted and assisted, but the problem continues and more government action is needed, Shah said.
Shah will meet with the humanitarian organization leaders in both Kenya and Somalia to help coordinate emergency action inside Somalia. The State Department has removed some restrictions on contractors and aid workers in Somalia, in recognition of the fact that strict rules preventing interactions with groups like sl-Shabab were impossible to enforce in Somalia.
"We have made exceptions on a range of policies that have allowed credible partners to be aggressive in their efforts to try to save lives," Shah said. "At the same time, we've asked for all of our partners to track and monitor the flow of food and benefits, commit themselves not to pay bribes, and we continue to watch that."
"Unfortunately, though, that's not the key to saving lives inside Somalia. The key is actions taken by leadership inside Somalia and that's what we'll be talking about in this visit."
In Kenya, Shah will attend a health conference along with Ambassador and former Special Envoy Scott Gration and in Ethiopia he will attend an agricultural conference. Shah is traveling with Ertharin Cousin, ambassador to U.N. agencies for agriculture
The State Department may be facing its toughest budget season ever, but there are still plenty of lawmakers who are ready to defend funding for diplomacy and development, according to Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides.
Congress rejected, by a 20 to 78 vote, an attempt by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) last week to fund $6.9 billion in emergency disaster relief by taking the money out of the State Department's foreign assistance budget. Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) all came to the State Department's defense.
"I think getting 78 votes against it was pretty darn good," Nides told The Cable in an interview. "We have bipartisan support. Clearly the great majority of the Senate thought it was not the right thing to do... Even in difficult times, people don't want to do things that would dramatically impact our national security."
Graham responded to Paul and defended foreign aid funding in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations Sept. 16. Graham explained how he defends foreign aid to the man on the street, a man he called "Bubba."
"Here's what I'd tell ‘Bubba,' when he asked," Graham said. "I'd say, listen, I got it, pal. We're not going to write any more checks to dictators and let them waste your money. We're just not going to through money. But less than 1 percent of what we spend at the federal level is on foreign assistance."
Nides said that Graham has been "enormously helpful" in defending foreign assistance. "He fundamentally believes that the funding of State Department and USAID is critical to our national security. His argument is not that we should be funding these things just based on humanitarian grounds, as important as that may be."
The chairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Africa subcommittee, Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) have also emerged as advocates for foreign assistance funding. In a Sept. 19 letter to the chairs of the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign ops subcommittee, obtained by The Cable, they defended funding for development assistance and the USAID operations accounts, both of which are slashed in the House version of next year's appropriations bill.
"Development assistance is a reflection of our moral imperative to assist others in need, a critical demonstration of American leadership in the world," they wrote. "We are keenly aware of the budgetary pressures facing Congress... we are concerned that reductions to development assistance will undermine U.S. priorities in Africa and throughout the developing world."
Nides said that the House version of the State and Foreign Ops appropriations bill, which would give $39.6 billion in fiscal 2012 to international affairs funding, "would have dramatic impact on the operations of the State Department." The Senate version, which would provide about $44.6 billion, is "more reasonable," he said.
Nides said that the State Department and USAID have succeeded in being added to the national security discussion -- but that also places diplomacy and development funding in competition with national security accounts, including the defense budget.
"You've got to fund defense, but not at the cost of depleting your diplomacy and development. That would be shortsighted," he said.
The supercommittee that is working on discretionary budget cuts this fall must deal with caps on "security" spending, which bundles defense, diplomacy, and development funding into one big pool of money. And that could leave the U.S. diplomatic corps as the odd man out.
The State Department does have one very powerful friend who sits on that committee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA). So does Nides think Kerry will use his supercommittee perch to come to State's defense?
"My assumption is that he'll do whatever he can to be supportive, but first and foremost he's going to have to do what's in the best interest of the American people," said Nides. "I think he will determine that that includes protecting our national security, and that includes funding for State and USAID."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford's once unlikely bid for Senate confirmation gained traction this week, as multiple GOP senators and a host of conservative foreign policy leaders changed their tune toward his nomination.
Placed in his post via a recess appointment last year, Ford would have to return to Washington at the end of December if the Senate does not vote to confirm him. Over the summer, Ford has actively engaged with Syrian opposition groups and has put himself at personal risk by attending meetings of opposition leaders and funerals of Syrian activists. These efforts have convinced a large portion of the GOP, which stymied his confirmation last year, that his presence in Damascus is a useful way of confronting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and not a concession to the brutal dictator.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) was the first critic of Ford's presence in Syria to reverse himself and come out in support of Ford's confirmation. Now, several GOP senators who have criticized Obama's Syria policy are following suit.
"Robert Ford has shown personal bravery and increasing effectiveness for advancing human rights in Syria and I am in support of his nomination," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told The Cable.
Congressional Quarterly reported on Thursday that Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who voted no on Ford during committee consideration in July, is now a supporter. "He's demonstrated very clearly that he can handle the tough job he's doing in Syria," Inhofe said.
Also, a group of conservative pundits, under the banner of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), released a statement supporting Ford's confirmation. FPI is led by Bill Kristol, Bob Kagan, and Jamie Fly.
"Whatever reason people had for wanting to withdraw our ambassador from Damascus before -- and they were legitimate -- circumstances have changed," Kagan told The Cable. "Ford is, very bravely, acting as a kind of U.S. representative to the opposition in Syria and is making clear to the Syrian people that the US stands with them and against Assad."
"It's pretty clear the Republican tide is now turning in Ford's favor," a senior Senate aide close to the issue told The Cable. "The reason, ironically, isn't because Republicans have been persuaded by the administration to support a policy of engagement. It's because the administration has been persuaded, by the facts on the ground, to abandon engagement... Everyone realizes Ford is now in Syria not as a bridge to Assad, but as a bridge to what comes after Assad."
The State Department senses that the tide is turning on the Ford nomination as well, and is pushing Ford out to the media this week. He conducted on-the-record interviews with The Daily Caller¸ the Huffington Post¸ and with your humble Cable guy.
In a phone call with The Cable, Ford laid out the reasons he believes that he should be allowed to stay in Damascus.
"When an ambassador makes a statement in a country that's critical of that country's government, when that government visits an opposition or a site where a protest is taking place, the statement is much more powerful -- and the impact and the attention it gets is much more powerful if it's an ambassador rather than a low-level diplomat," Ford said.
Ford said he still meets with Syrian Foreign Ministry officials, as has as recently as last week, but only about routine diplomatic business and not about the regime or overall U.S. policy. "There really is not a lot that we need to say to the Syrian government," Ford said. "We don't need to discuss their reform initiative because we don't take it seriously."
Ford said he is definitely not trying to get himself kicked out of Damascus, as some in Washington believe. He is also meeting frequently with Syrians who are "on the fence," and could be turned against the Assad regime, such as business leaders, government employees, Christians, and the Allawite community, which has until recently been loyal to Assad.
Amid discord between various opposition groups inside and outside Syria, Ford's message to the Syrian opposition is that it should unite and put together a plan for transitioning to a new government. "Otherwise it's just going to be very bloody and bad later," he said. He is also urging them to keep the protests peaceful in order to maintain international sympathy.
There has been some discussion in Washington about why Ford doesn't announce his activities in Syria or post about them on his Facebook page, which he has used to criticize the Assad regime. Ford said his activities are well-covered in Syria and around the region by the Arab language press.
"I'm thinking much more about my audience here in Syria; I'm not so worried about the Washington repercussions," he said.
What's clear is that Ford has had some close calls. In addition to being assaulted by a pro-regime thug, the funeral he attended of slain activist Giyath Matar was attacked by regime forces just after he left. In fact, he said, he was only a block away in his car when the attack occurred.
At first, the crowd at the funeral was chanting, "God, Syria, freedom, and that's all," Ford remembered. He and the other seven ambassadors at the funeral left, however, when the crowd started shouting, "The people want to bring the downfall of the regime."
"I don't want to be an American ambassador encouraging a crowd to bring down the regime. That would be incitement, that's the red line," Ford said.
It seems that Ford's actions are getting under the skin of the Syrian regime. Ford said that after trashing Matar's funeral, Syrian forces spray painted on the side of Matar's house, "The Matar family is an agent of the American ambassador."
Keep your eye on these Capitol Hill staffers, all of whom were selected for the 2011 Fall Congressional Fellowship Program at the Partnership for a Secure America (PSA), a centrist, security-minded policy organization here in Washington.
Founded by former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton (D-IN) and U.S. Senator Warren Rudman (R-NH), PSA is advised by former Democratic national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Samuel Berger, as well as former GOP Senators Howard Baker and Slade Gorton. Among the recent additions to its board are former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Defense Secretary William Cohen.
The new PSA Congressional Fellows will participate in a program that will allow them to network and interact with top experts and senior Obama administration officials. This is the fifth session of the fellows program.
"[T]he program brings together Republican and Democratic staff to develop the skills and relationships required to advance bipartisanship on national security and foreign policy issues," PSA will say in its forthcoming press release. "Through training, networking, and interaction with top leaders in these fields, this unique program aims to build a ‘next generation' of foreign affairs and national security experts equipped to respect differences, build common ground, and achieve US national interests.
Full list of fellows after the jump:
The White House today adopted Rep. Paul Ryan's dubious claim that winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would save $1 trillion over the next decade.
"The plan produces approximately $4.4 trillion in deficit reduction net the cost of the American Jobs Act," the White House said in a fact sheet issued to accompany President Barack Obama's new plan to cut the deficit. "$1.1 trillion from the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and transition from a military to a civilian-led mission in Iraq."
The more than $1 trillion in defense "savings" that the White House claims is based on a projection the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) put out last March, which found that war costs would top $1.7 trillion over the next ten years. However, that projection was never meant to accurately forecast the costs of the wars over the next decade. The report just took this year's costs for Iraq and Afghanistan ($159 billion) and added inflation for every year in the future.
In other words, the CBO number was the projection if the United States kept the current number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan until 2020. However, nobody ever thought that was the plan. The CBO was required to do the math that way, as they do with all such projections.
At today's White House briefing, reporters were quick to point out that Obama never planned to keep that many troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for the next ten years. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Jack Lew's response was to point out that the House GOP had used the same faulty logic in Paul Ryan's budget plan.
"There is no doubt that those are going to be savings when presented to Congress. The Republican budget in the House took account of them," Lew said, referring to the Ryan budget plan that the House passed in April.
It's also true that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) claimed the same "savings" in the plan he released to avert a debt ceiling crisis, although that plan never got any traction. But the CBO issued a report on the day Reid's plan was released to make it clear that its projection should not be used in this way.
"It is important to note that the administration projection is not really a policy-based estimate -- CBO takes the most recent number and that becomes their baseline," said the report, which was crafted for congressional offices and obtained by The Cable.
The White House's gambit is only its latest attempts to claim savings from cutting defense when actually no cuts exist. The White House claimed it had cut $350 billion from defense over ten years as part of the debt ceiling deal, but actually there are no defense cuts in the bill.
What the bill does is set spending caps for "security" spending, which the administration defines as defense, homeland security, intelligence, nuclear weapons, diplomacy, and foreign aid. There's no breakdown that defines which of these agencies get what, so there's no way to be sure that all the cuts would come from "defense." Moreover, the spending caps are split between "security" and "non-security" discretionary spending only for fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2013.
If the next five Congresses actually cut the defense budget by $350 billion and if the Congressional supercommittee fails to find another $900 billion in discretionary cuts, that would "trigger" another $600 billion cuts in defense over ten years. Added to the $350, that would total about $1 trillion in defense "savings."
But Lew was clear that the trigger, which officials are now referring to as "sequestration," is not something the administration wants to happen.
"I don't know any serious policymakers on either side of the aisle who think sequestration is a good place to go," he said. "It was designed to be something that would have bad consequences wherever you look because it is not a serious set of policies."
The Senate confirmed Wendy Sherman as undersecretary of State for political affairs late Thursday by unanimous consent, despite reports that she would face stiff GOP opposition.
In the end, no one on Capitol Hill had an appetite for a fight over Sherman's nomination, despite the fact that multiple GOP Senate staffs had been compiling research to use against her. Senate staffs had raised questions about her ties to Chinese businesses, her stance on North Korea, and her stint as head of the Fannie Mae Foundation -- but ultimately not even one senator put a hold on the nomination. Two senior GOP Congressional aides told The Cable that Sherman benefitted from some last minute assistance from Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), whose office contacted the offices of other GOP senators this week to urge them not to block the confirmation. Sherman's mother once worked for Isakson and so he felt an affinity for her and decided to lobby on her behalf.
"I had previously voted against her nomination earlier this week when it was brought before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but I have received information since that leads me to change my vote," Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), said in a floor statement Thursday.
"My good friend Senator Isakson of Georgia spoke to me about his 30-plus-year relationship with the Sherman family. Ms. Sherman's mother, Miriam "Mimi" Sherman, started working for Northside Realty, Senator Isakson's business based in Marietta, GA, in the late seventies and eighties. Mimi Sherman, who passed away in 2005, was a terrific person, and Senator Isakson was very happy to call her a close friend and fellow coworker. He also has known Wendy during this entire time and knows that she embodies the same qualities that her mother did. He is confident that she is qualified for the position and will do a great job at the State Department as undersecretary of State for political affairs."
One senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable that there was a lot of unease about Sherman's nomination in the GOP caucus but, at the end of the day, there just wasn't enough energy or bandwidth for the fight, and the issue got lost in the distraction of all the other crises in Washington right now.
"[N]obody wanted to be the lead on holding her up," the aide said. "In a few months from now, some of these [senators] are going to be kicking themselves for not taking a harder look at this now, but then it will be too late."
The GOP aides also gave some credit to the State Department, which was active in getting senior foreign policy hands around Washington, including several Republicans, to call the GOP Senate offices in support of Sherman's confirmation.
"The administration anticipated a huge fight and lined up their ducks and they were able to stave off a real challenge," the Senate GOP aide said.
The GOP caucus is also concerned about a dwindling amount of foreign policy expertise and institutional knowledge in the Senate. As senior senators retire, multiple GOP aides said, there's worry that newer, greener lawmakers will not have the background or the enthusiasm to take on complicated foreign policy issues.
Sherman previously served as assistant secretary of State for legislative affairs and later as State Department counselor and North Korea policy coordinator. She has worked recently as vice chairman of the Albright-Stonebridge consulting group. She now replaces Bill Burns, who became deputy secretary of State in June, replacing Jim Steinberg. During Sherman's confirmation process, the State Department brought in Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon to serve as acting undersecretary. He will now be returning to Brazil.
The next looming State Department nomination fights are over Sung Kim, the nominee for U.S. ambassador to South Korea, who we've confirmed does have a hold, and Mike McFaul, the NSC senior director for Russia who was just nominated as U.S. ambassador to Moscow. The Senate hasn't received the paperwork on McFaul yet, but several senators are girding for a fight over the U.S.-Russia reset policy.
We'll see if that fight actually materializes...
The U.S. and Burmese governments are reengaging, both in Rangoon and in New York, as the State Department makes a new push to test the willingness of the Burmese military junta to reform.
Special Envoy Derek Mitchell is on his way home after a five day visit to Burma, where he met with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as well as a host of Burmese government officials, although not President Thein Sein. He called his talks with government officials a success in a press conference at the end of his trip.
"I consider this a very highly productive visit," said Mitchell, explaining that he had discussed the release of political prisoners but received no firm commitments from the Burmese government. He also met with Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and Labor Minister Aung Kyi.
"We had a very candid dialogue on the subject" of human rights violations, Mitchell said. "The issue of sanctions was not a primary point of discussion."
"I know that many within the international community remain skeptical about [the Burmese government's] commitment to genuine reform and reconciliation, and I urge the authorities to prove the skeptics wrong," Mitchell said.
Apparently, the dialogue was encouraging enough for the State Department to schedule another round of meetings with Burmese officials, this time in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly next week. Maung Lwin is set to meet with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Cambell, according to a U.S. official traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in San Francisco this week.
"There are clear winds of change blowing through Burma. We are trying to get a sense of how strong those winds are and whether it's possible to substantially improve our relationship," the official said.
Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), one of only two U.S. senators to visit Burma, is also renewing his push for more interactions with the Burmese government. He argued in a recent statement that, despite the severely flawed elections in Burma that took place last November, positive change was occurring on the ground.
"The election resulted in a new governmental system and opportunities for engagement. Burma is now in the midst of a key transitional period that has yielded greater opportunities for interaction with government leaders and civil society, and restructuring of government and military institutions," said Webb.
The Senate is actually considering a bill this week to reauthorize sanctions on Burma. However, Senate Democrats decided to try to attach $6.8 billion in emergency disaster aid to that bill, which provoked resistance from the GOP, so its path in Congress is now caught up in the fight over the relief funds - despite the fact that neither party has any objection to the renewal of sanctions.
Webb said the bill should be passed but noted that it allows the president to waive specific sanctions if and when he feels it's in the U.S. national interest.
"There are clear indications of a new openness from the government, and the United States should be prepared to adjust our policy toward Burma accordingly," Webb said.
Deputy Secretary of Defense nominee Ashton Carter's path to confirmation looks clear following the endorsement of Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who had previously threatened to stall his nomination.
The Cable reported last month that Cornyn was demanding assurances from Carter that he would fully support the F-35 jet fighter program before he could support his nomination. "As the Senate prepares to consider your nomination, I write to express disappointment with your apparent lack of commitment to the success of the largest DOD major acquisition program in our nation's history, the F-35 Lightning II," Cornyn wrote in a letter to Carter.
Following Carter's nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, The Cable caught up with Cornyn in the halls of the Capitol building. The Texas senator told us he met with Carter, received written answers to all his questions, and could now confidently support his confirmation.
"Dr. Carter assured me that the F-35 will form the backbone of U.S. air combat for generations to come, and I applaud him for improving the execution of this critical program," Cornyn told The Cable.
The Cable has also obtained Carter's written response to Cornyn, which included assurances that the Defense Department was committed to the F-35, would not take more money from the production budget to purchase older model fighters, would not significantly reduce production rates, and would not take money from the F-35 program to pay for other struggling accounts within the Pentagon.
"The Department's support for the F-35 program is strong," Carter wrote. "We are committed to ensuring that decisions concerning the F-35 are made for the correct reasons and with a commitment toward overall F-35 program success."
"Thanks to Dr. Carter, it's on a good pathway," Cornyn said, explaining that one assurance Carter had given him was that future cost overruns would be borne by the contractor alone.
"The problem is, as Dr. Carter said, there is no alternative to the Joint Strike Fighter and it's essential to national security," Cornyn noted, adding that he expects Carter's nomination to pass easily.
We also asked Cornyn for an update on his plan to try to pressure the Obama administration into selling 66 new F-16 C/D jet fighters to Taiwan. Cornyn introduced a bill this week that seeks to require the administration to make the sale, which, if successful, would be the first time ever that Congress has authorized a foreign military sale not sent to them by the executive branch.
Cornyn said that he would try to attach the bill, which he cosponsored with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), to a piece of legislation "that's likely to get signed" -- presumably the defense authorization bill or the coming continuing resolution stopgap funding measure that Congress will have to pass this month to keep the government running.
The administration has promised Cornyn it will announce its decision on Taiwan arms sales by Oct. 1, but reports suggest that the administration is planning to deny Taipei's request for new planes and offer instead upgrades to their existing fleet of older F16 A/B models.
"Sen. Menendez and I felt it was important to indicate that the issue isn't going to go away," Cornyn said. "The president could veto it if it passes, we'll see what happens. I would hope that the president would make this moot by approving the sale and not kow-towing to China."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford keeps putting himself in harm's way. This Sunday, he attended the funeral of a Syrian activist shortly before it was attacked by Syrian security forces.
"US amb. Robert Ford shows up at the wake of slain #syria activist Giyath Matar. An hour later the funeral tent is trashed by security forces," tweeted Washington Post foreign correspondent Liz Sly Tuesday afternoon.
We found a video that shows Ford at the funeral, which took place on Sept. 11. The State Department today confirmed to The Cable that he was in attendance. We also found a video (warning: graphic) of Matar's tortured and mutilated body, posted by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been meticulously documenting cases of alleged abuse against domestic protesters by the Syrian security forces.
"Security forces corpse [sic] submitted his corpse to his family and told them that you can make from his body a ‘Shawerma' sandwich!!!" the human rights organization reported.
Ford, who was installed as the U.S. envoy to Damascus in a recess appointment, was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. But unless he can overcome a tough confirmation fight on the Senate floor, he will be forced to return to Washington at the end of the year.
The group also posted a video of the body of Ahmad Sulaiman Ayrut, who they allege was killed in the government attack on Matar's funeral.
The State Department condemned Matar's killing at a Monday press briefing, but only later confirmed to The Cable Ford's attendance at the funeral. So far, State has not commented on the violence at the funeral.
"This was a very high-profile human rights activist in Syria, apparently arrested on September 6th and died in custody -- again, further evidence of this regime's brutality, indiscriminate force, and absolute disregard for human life and for the human rights of its citizens," said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
There was no mention of Ford's attendance on the U.S. embassy of Damascus's Facebook page. The last Facebook posting by Ford came on Sept. 8, where he references threats being made on his life by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"[Commenter] Mujtaba Xr warns me that I will face being killed if I continue my criticism of the repression in Syria. I take his post to be a perfectly good example of the kind of intolerance that has provoked such discontent in Syria," Ford wrote. "Remember that I am one of the few international observers here on the ground; if only the Syrian government would allow international media to move around the country freely like we did in Iraq!"
Ford's close call comes only two weeks after he was physically assaulted by a regime supporter while standing outside an anti-government sit-in by some lawyers at the Syrian Bar Association. The State Department didn't say anything about that incident either, until it was reported by The Cable.
Of course, it's possible that Ford is actually trying to get himself kicked out of Syria by the Assad regime. That would allow the Obama administration to spotlight Assad's intolerance and allow the State Department to avoid a fight over Ford's Senate confirmation.
The internal GOP battle over U.S. policy in Afghanistan took another turn last night when Gov. Rick Perry endorsed Jon Huntsman's call for a speedy withdrawal -- and hawkish GOP senators are not happy with Perry over the remarks.
"I agree with Gov. Huntsman when we talk about it's time to bring our young men and women home as soon, and obviously as safely, as we can," Perry said. "And I think the entire conversation about, how do we deliver our aid to those countries, and is it best spent with 100,000 military who have the target on their back in Afghanistan, I don't think so at this particular point in time."
As the Perry policy team grows, some of the foreign policy advisors suggested to him by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are taking full-time positions on the campaign. The Cable has learned that Rumseld book researcher Victoria Coates, also known as the Red State blogger "Academic Elephant," has taken on the role of foreign policy director for the campaign.
Still, Perry's foreign policy identity doesn't always follow the GOP hawk's playbook, and that is irking some senior GOP senators, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
"I'm disappointed that some people in our party are not embracing the concept that the outcome in Afghanistan will determine our national security fate for decades to come," Graham told The Cable, when asked about Perry's remarks. "I would like to hear [Perry] talk about what does it matter to us as a nation whether Afghanistan is a success or a failure."
"We have 300 million people with targets on their backs here at home. The 100,000 are fighting these guys over there so we don't have to fight them over here," Graham said. "We are going to hand over responsibility to the Afghan government. But the 100,000 troops are needed to stabilize the country."
"Romney's been great, he says ‘listen to the generals,'" Graham said. "The transition plan has been accelerated [by Obama] in a very unwise way."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said he didn't want to criticize any presidential candidates' statements, but did say that the isolationist trend in the GOP is growing.
"I've voiced many time concerns about the trends toward isolationism and that's always been present in our party, but there's no doubt the economic situation has caused them to gain more adherence," McCain told The Cable.
In a sign of how internally conflicted the GOP is on Afghanistan, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) appeared undecided on whether he supported President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw all 30,000 surge troops from Afghanistan by the summer of 2012.
"For some time, we've said publicly we're very concerned about the way we're distorting the Afghan economy right now," he told The Cable, referring to the influx of foreign aid.
But does he support Obama's policy?
"I think the initial steps that have been taken -- I'm not talking about the whole 30,000 -- I don't have any problem with the initial steps," Corker said.
But what about the withdrawal of the entirety of the 30,000 surge troops? Corker said that policy probably will get changed anyway.
"Well, each step along the way, I'm sure the president is going to massage what he's doing.... For what it's worth, we're spending a lot of time in our office on that. I'm taking a trip there in the near future and you're asking me this question six weeks earlier than you should."
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), during her press conference to push her U.N. reform bill, pledged that she is not trying to "bash" the United Nations by calling for withholding U.S. funds from the organization.
"This bill is about reforming the U.N.; it's not about bashing the U.N.; it's not about taking the U.S. out of the U.N.," Ros-Lehtinen said at the Tuesday morning press conference as she stood in front of 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.
"Some call our bill backwards, but I don't think it's backwards to demand transparency, accountability, and reform. But I do think the adjective 'backwards' too often applies to what we're paying for at the U.N.," she said.
The bill would shift U.S. contributions to the United Nations to a "voluntary basis," rather than have them follow the compulsory-assessed fees system that is in place now. If the United Nations doesn't receive 80 percent of its funding 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 U.S. contributions to the United Nations.
A summary of the legislation prepared by Ros-Lehtinen's staff says that the bill, "[o]pposes efforts by the Palestinian leadership to evade a negotiated settlement with Israel" by seeking recognition at the United Nations and "[w]ithholds U.S. contributions from any UN agency or program that upgrades the status of the PLO/Palestinian observer mission."
"The U.N. General Assembly has one permanent agenda item every year, and it is to condemn Israel," Ros-Lehtinen said.
She also responded to her ranking member Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who told The Cable that Ros-Lehtinen's bill was ill-advised and probably dead on arrival. "I cannot see this legislation becoming law. I think there are some radical proposals here," he said.
"Most of what we're doing in the House has very little chance of becoming law, no matter what it is. Does that mean we should stop doing things? Whether the Senate is going to pass it does not mean that we should not propose a bill that will put a marker down," she said.
"I hope it becomes a bipartisan bill -- I would like that. And I hope the administration would join us. I am in the business of hope."
She also said Barack Obama's administration is doing a poor job of managing the Palestinian drive to seek member-state status at the United Nations later this month.
"It speaks to the lack of leadership of the Obama administration that, all these months, there has been a leadership vacuum at the White House," Ros-Lehtinen said, adding that even an elevated observer status for the Palestinians at the United Nations would be unwise.
"That should not be the consolation prize, which is what more or less it has become," she said.
Ros-Lehtinen was joined by 10 other GOP lawmakers, all of whom gave statements expressing criticism of the United Nations, but none of whom stuck around to field questions from the assembled reporters in the room.
Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), a freshman member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), criticized U.N. support for China's "one child left behind" policy, apparently mixing China's one-child policy and America's "No Child Left Behind" education policy.
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), chair of HFAC's Middle East subcommittee declared, "If there's any organization that's in greater need of reform than the U.N., I don't know what it would be … except perhaps the United States Congress."
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice addressed Ros-Lehtinen's bill this week, saying, "Legislation that would withhold funding for the United Nations is fundamentally flawed in concept and practice, sets us back, is self-defeating, and doesn't work."
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.