The United States and Iran, having clinched a landmark interim deal suspending some aspects of Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, turned their attention this week to addressing the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
The long-standing adversaries were scheduled to attend a dinner tonight hosted by Britain's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and participate tomorrow in U.N.-sponsored conference at the Palais de Nations aimed at persuading Syria's combatants to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid.
The conference -- which will bring key regional and international powers together -- will provide the first major test of whether progress on the nuclear front can be converted into political progress and an improvement in living conditions for millions of needy civilians in Syria.
Syria is coping with one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades, with more than 9 million civilians in need of assistance, and more than 2.5 million people largely cut off from aid. Nearly 300,000 civilians are living under a state of siege, mostly at the hands of government forces, forced to forage for leaves to survive.
Humanitarian relief advocates expressed hope that the diplomatic progress in Geneva, combined with a recent pact to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, can refocus international attention on the plight of Syrian civilians. "The diplomatic breakthrough, first on chemical weapons, and now on nuclear energy demonstrates a political solution is possible," said Noah Gottschalk, senior humanitarian policy advisor at OxFam, America. "And it gives us hope that they can reach a deal on a cease fire and improve humanitarian access and ultimately achieve a political solution to the conflict."
But other observers cautioned that Iran's diplomats can only go so far without provoking hardliners at home who view the country's alliance with President Bashar al-Assad as vital to Tehran's national security interests. "Iran can score some easy points with the West by showing flexibility on issues like humanitarian access, but Tehran is not going to desert Assad completely," said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. "That would alienate hardline critics of the recent opening to the West inside Iran."
In advance of the meeting, Syria pledged for the first time during the conflict to allow the U.N. to run aid convoys from Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon without having to channel them through the capital of Damascus. But Syria has refused to permit goods to enter through southern Turkey, a conduit for the rebels' military supplies, but also one of the most concentrated areas of civilian humanitarian need. It remained unclear whether the aid would be delivered directly to the needy along the border or would have to be delivered through Damascus first, a condition Syria had previously placed on the United Nations.
"The Syrian government has formally notified the [U.N.] resident coordinator of its decision to allow the entry of humanitarian aid through official border crossings with Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq," according to an unpublished copy of a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council from Syria's U.N. envoy Bashar Al Ja'afari. "In the case of the border crossings with Turkey, however, it has been impossible to open an official crossing because armed terrorist groups are active along most of the border with the support of the Turkish authorities," the letter said.
The Syrian envoy accused anti-government "terrorists" with responsibility as being responsible for the humanitarian crisis, and pledged to streamline its own procedures for issuing visas for international aid workers and approving tours by U.N. aid convoys.
"There has been increasing discussion regarding cooperation between the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the United Nations in order to deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians affected by events in Syria," Ja'afari wrote. "At the meetings, an agreement was reached to intensify cooperation by overhauling administrative procedures and removing so-called bureaucratic obstacles. The Syrian government affirmed that it would make every possible effort to facilitate the humanitarian work of the United Nations and international organizations."
The United Nations has faulted both sides in the conflict for denying humanitarian relief to civilians. But they have accused the Syrian government of preventing the delivery of medicines to rebel-controlled areas, imposing siege conditions on civilians, and enforcing a range of bureaucratic impediments that severely restrict the delivery of aid. One U.N. diplomat said that Syria's latest offer of cooperation reflects its concern that the U.N. Security Council may impose tougher measures on the government if it fails to expand humanitarian access. "They fear a resolution," the official said.
The humanitarian aid conference will open one day after Ban and the U.N. Arab League special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, announced plans to schedule a long-anticipated Jan. 22 peace conference between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition. The aim of the meeting (referred to as Geneva 2) is to implement a June 30, 2012 political communique (known as Geneva 1) calling for the establishment of a transitional government in Syria, including representatives from the government and opposition.
"At long last and for the first time, the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield," Ban told reporters in New York today. "Even though the conference will take place in about eight weeks, all parties can and must begin now to take steps to help the Geneva conference succeed, including toward the cessation of violence, humanitarian access, release of detainees and internally displaced people to their homes."
But shortly after Ban's announcement, Brahimi acknowledged that he has yet to secure commitments from two of the rival combatants' key supporters, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to attended the peace conference. The United States and other Western powers have insisted that Tehran only be invited to the political meeting if it endorses the Geneva Communique, and its proposal for a political transition in Syria. Saudi Arabia has refused to discuss the political conference with Brahimi, fearing the peace conference would grant legitimacy to Assad's government.
But it remained unclear whether Saudi Arabia, which has drafted a Security Council resolution compelling Syria to grant unfettered access throughout the country to humanitarian aid workers, will attend tomorrow's session.
Tuesday's talks, which will be chaired by the U.N., Australia, and Luxembourg, includes a growing roster of foreign governments (including the five permanent members of the Security Council: the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia), key regional powers (Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, and Kuwait), and European governments (Norway, Germany, and Italy).
The meeting will open with a speech by Valerie Amos, the U.N. relief coordinator, and involve a more detailed briefing on the situation by John Ging, the director of operations for U.N. relief efforts. "If Amos's intention is to bring all these countries together to put pressure on the Syrian regime to lift the siege then we welcome it," said Najib Ghadbian, the U.S. and U.N. representative of the Syrian National Coalition. "But ideally we would have liked to see a Security Council resolution on humanitarian access [that threatened] consequences for non-compliance. Period."
The United States and its key intelligence allies are quietly working behind the scenes to kneecap a mounting movement in the United Nations to promote a universal human right to online privacy, according to diplomatic sources and an internal American government document obtained by The Cable.
The diplomatic battle is playing out in an obscure U.N. General Assembly committee that is considering a proposal by Brazil and Germany to place constraints on unchecked internet surveillance by the National Security Agency and other foreign intelligence services. American representatives have made it clear that they won't tolerate such checks on their global surveillance network. The stakes are high, particularly in Washington -- which is seeking to contain an international backlash against NSA spying -- and in Brasilia, where Brazilian President Dilma Roussef is personally involved in monitoring the U.N. negotiations.
The Brazilian and German initiative seeks to apply the right to privacy, which is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to online communications. Their proposal, first revealed by The Cable, affirms a "right to privacy that is not to be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy, family, home, or correspondence." It notes that while public safety may "justify the gathering and protection of certain sensitive information," nations "must ensure full compliance" with international human rights laws. A final version the text is scheduled to be presented to U.N. members on Wednesday evening and the resolution is expected to be adopted next week.
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Geneva — American and Iranian negotiators settled into a luxury hotel here for several days of talks designed to hash out the final details of what could be a historic nuclear deal. Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign secretaries are watching the talks closely, ready to fly to Geneva at a moment's notice if an agreement is reached.
U.S. officials say they're cautiously optimistic these talks will pan out. The two sides came exceptionally close to a deal earlier this month, but those negotiations ended with Kerry and his colleagues boarding their planes and flying home without an agreement. This time around, officials from both sides believe that many of the disputes that gummed up the last round of negotiations have been at least partially resolved.
Don't take out the champagne just yet, however. Some significant differences remain, and it's not at all clear that the negotiators will be able to bridge all of them. Below are three key issues worth watching as the talks get underway.
United They Stand. The negotiations are being led by the so-called P5+1 -- a grouping of the United States, England, Russia, France, China, and Germany -- and the success of any deal will depend on whether all of the countries will be willing to sign off on it. The last time around, France refused, effectively vetoing the proposed agreement. Paris felt that the deal didn't do enough to reduce Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium or stop the construction of the plutonium enrichment facility at Arak. The key question now is whether the current talks will produce a deal that can go as far as France wants without demanding concessions that go beyond what Tehran can accept.
Nuclear Rights. It may seem small in the scheme of things, but one of the biggest remaining disagreements between the two sides concerns the question of whether Iran has the "right" to enrich uranium. Tehran has long demanded what would amount to a Western stamp of approval of sorts for its nuclear efforts. The United States has refused to grant it for just as long. Part of the disagreement is practical: Acknowledging that Iran has a right to continue enriching uranium would allow Iran to keep much of its current nuclear infrastructure intact, albeit under strict international supervision. The other aspect is legal: Tehran could use Western acknowledgement of its right to enrich uranium to argue that the United States and its allies have no legal standing for sanctioning its nuclear program. On Wednesday, a senior administration official said the Non-Proliferation Treaty is "silent" on the issue. "It neither confers a right nor denies a right," the official said. "We do not believe it is inherently there." The official expressed optimism that the two sides could find common ground, but the wording issue has stymied previous attempts at a deal.
Tehran's "Rabid Dogs." Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, raised eyebrows Wednesday when he told members of a paramilitary group that Israel was "a rabid dog" and accused the United States of harboring "warmongering" policies. Khamenei also mocked Washington for the recent government shutdown, telling the crowd that "instead of using threats, go and repair your devastated economy so that your government is not shut down for 15 or 16 days." It's easy to listen to those comments and conclude that Khamenei is simply uninterested in a deal, which is a definite possibility. Some administration officials take a different view, however. They say that Khamenei might have been directing his comments at a domestic audience that remains deeply skeptical of U.S. intentions after decades of hostility. The more important aspect of the supreme leader's comments, they argue, were his continued public support of the ongoing nuclear talks. The success of the current negotiations will come down to which interpretation of Khamenei's words is correct.
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The United States and Iran, enemies in a proxy war in Syria, now appear likely to come together at an upcoming U.N.-sponsored meeting to try grapple with the worsening humanitarian crisis there. It's the most visible sign yet of the rival powers willingness to work together to resolve the crisis in Syria, according to several U.N.-based diplomats and officials. And it's another indication of the emerging thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran.
The U.N. chief relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, recently sent invitations to at least a dozen countries -- including the United States, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia -- to participate in a high level meeting in Geneva aimed at prodding Syria's warring parties to provide relief workers access to more than 2.5 million people who have been cut off from the U.N. aid pipeline. Invitations have also been sent to Australia, Britain, China, France, Luxembourg, Russia, Kuwait, Qatar, and a representative of the European Union.
"The humanitarian situation in Syria is deteriorating on a daily basis," according to a confidential U.N. paper describing the initiative. "The objective of the high level humanitarian group is to foster and maximize cooperation among those countries with influence over parties to the Syrian conflict to address humanitarian challenges."
It remains unclear precisely when the U.N. meeting, which was initially planned for the middle of November, will take place. But a diplomat from a country on the invitation list said it would likely be scheduled within about two weeks.
U.S. and Iranian diplomats responded favorably to the request, according to diplomats. But one official said it was unclear whether Saudi Arabia, which has clashed with the United States over its approach to Syria and Iran, would join the group.
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A U.S. government-funded foreign aid organization is considering sending hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to countries whose flawed, corrupt or undemocratic governments should almost certainly be ineligible for the money according to the agency's own internal guidelines.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation, or MCC, is an independent U.S. foreign aid agency dedicated to "advancing American values" by reducing poverty, advancing good governance, and weeding out corruption. But people familiar with the matter say that the MCC -- led by Colorado banker Daniel Yohannes (pictured above, left) -- is seriously contemplating giving money to Sierra Leone and Benin, which fail to meet its "control of corruption" requirements, and Liberia and Morocco, which meet less than half of the organization's 20 requirements for civil liberties, sound economic policies, and other measures. If approved, each country could receive hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. government funding over the next few years.
At least one member of the MCC's eight-person board of directors has argued against giving money to the four countries, but it's not clear if that opposition will be enough to sway the rest of the board, which meets next month to review all of its current and potential projects. This is the first time in the MCC's nine-year history that so many potential recipients of its money have failed to meet the grant requirements. And it comes at a sensitive time for Yohannes; on Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considering his nomination to be America's representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
It's far from a simple issue of bureaucratic infighting. If everything breaks right, the MCC money could give a quartet of poor countries the money they need to build new airports and take other steps to juice their economies. If the MCC bets on the wrong countries, by contrast, huge amounts of American money could disappear into the pockets of corrupt government officials or business leaders.
Brazil and Germany today joined forces to press for the adoption of a U.N. General Resolution that promotes the right of privacy on the internet, marking the first major international effort to restrain the National Security Agency's intrusions into the online communications of foreigners, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the push.
The effort follows a German claim that the American spy agency may have tapped the private telephone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and dozens of other world leaders. It also comes about one month after Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff denounced NSA espionage against her country as "a breach of international law" in a General Assembly speech and proposed that the U.N. establish legal guidelines to prevent "cyberspace from being used as a weapon of war."
Brazilian and German diplomats met in New York today with a small group of Latin American and European governments to consider a draft resolution that calls for expanding privacy rights contained in the International Covenant Civil and Political Rights to the online world. The draft does not refer to a flurry of American spying revelations that have caused a political uproar around the world, particularly in Brazil and Germany. But it was clear that the revelation provided the political momentum to trigger today's move to the United Nations. The blowback from the NSA leaks continues to agonize U.S. diplomats and military officials concerned about America's image abroad.
"This is an example of the very worst aspects of the Snowden disclosures," a former defense official with deep experience in NATO, told The Cable, referring to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. "It will be very difficult for the US to dig out of this, although we will over time. The short term costs in credibility and trust are enormous."
Secretary of State John Kerry is at odds with several senior State Department officials over whether to press ahead with plans for a high-profile peace conference next month that is designed to put negotiators from Syria’s main opposition groups and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into the same room for the first time.
Kerry is strongly committed to holding the talks and has spent the past several days prodding key Syrian opposition figures to take part in the negotiations. But according to several senior State Department officials, some of Kerry's top advisors believe that the conference should be called off because the most important of those opposition leaders are unlikely to come.
“The only person who wants the Geneva conference to happen is the secretary,” a senior U.S. official told The Cable. “Who’s going to show up? Will they actually represent anyone? If not, why take the risk?”
The Geneva conference has been in the planning stages for months, and Western officials have long expressed hopes that it could help pave the way for a negotiated solution to the Syria crisis.
The Obama administration and its top allies believe that the fighting in Syria is largely at a stalemate, with forces loyal to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad unable to fully vanquish the country’s insurgents and the rebels looking to unseat Assad unable to conquer Damascus or oust him by force. Peace talks, Kerry argues, offer the only realistic chance of ending a civil war that has already claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Syrians and forced millions of others from their homes.
There’s just one catch: a growing number of key Syrian opposition leaders say they won’t attend the conference unless Assad promises to transfer power to a transitional government and then step aside. Assad has rejected both of those demands, and Kerry’s critics within the State Department believe that there is a good chance that the main opposition groups will either boycott the conference entirely or send a delegation that has little to no influence over the rebels who are actually fighting Assad’s forces. Some of the officials said the conference should be postponed or canceled to avoid an embarrassing public failure for the U.S.
The U.S. government shutdown may finally be starting to wind down, if reports out of Capitol Hill and the White House are to be believed. But in the meantime, the cutoff of federal funds is hobbling American diplomatic efforts around the globe. A long-planned visit from a delegation of Chinese generals has been waived off. The State Department has been forced to postpone a scheduled review in Geneva of America's human rights record. High-level diplomatic, trade, and military meetings have all been shelved.
Last week, the shutdown prompted President Barack Obama to cancel plans to attend last weekend's summit of Asian leaders in Bali, Indonesia. The U.S. trade representative, meanwhile, announced that the United States would have to delay its participation in ongoing trade negotiations in Brussels; the office's tiny, $4 million annual travel budget is now effectively zero. Turns out those major, public admissions were only the start.
Some of China's most influential military thinkers and policymakers -- including several general officers -- were due to come to the United States next week for a series of long-arranged meetings at the U.S. Army War College, followed by private discussions at some of Washington's more prominent think tanks. Led by the respected Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu of the Chinese Academy of Military Science, the delegation's meetings were considered important at a time when Beijing and Washington are squaring off over issues from cybersecurity to the South China Sea.
But on Wednesday, the Army said it had to cancel the meetings because the funds to host the Chinese had dried up. "After the American democratic process provides the Army with funding to conduct international activities, we look forward to rescheduling this exchange at both sides' earliest possible convenience," the service noted in an email.
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The Obama administration is trying to send a message to Egypt's generals by cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S aid. The only problem is that it isn't entirely clear what the message actually is.
U.S. officials said Wednesday that the administration would delay planned deliveries of F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and M1A1 tanks. The officials said they would also suspend a planned $260 million cash transfer to the Egyptians; Congresional aides briefed on the matter said that a $300 million loan guarantee would also be held back. (The U.S. gives Egypt roughly $1.5 billion per year in total aid.)
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. was "recalibrating" its aid to Egypt in response to the military's continued killing of unarmed protesters demanding the reinstatement of ousted President Mohamed Morsy as well as the arrests and detentions of key opposition leaders. General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Army chief who has ruled the country since removing Morsy from power, has promised to hold new elections and take other steps to restore Egypt's nascent democratic system, but the officials said the military was taking too long to follow through on its assurances.
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For weeks, Iraqi officials have been publicly floating the idea of using American drones to hit the increasingly lethal al-Qaeda-affiliated militants on their soil. But the ordinarily drone-friendly Obama administration is apparently in no mood to open up a new front in global campaign of unmanned attacks. An administration official tells The Cable that American drone strikes in Iraq are now off the table.
Though neither Iraqi nor U.S. officials will say who called off the drones, it's no secret who began discussing them in the first place. In an August 17 trip to Washington, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters that Baghdad is seeking U.S. advisers, air surveillance or drone strikes to combat al-Qaeda's grip on the country. "We cannot fight these increasing terrorist" threats alone, he said. Speaking of drone strikes specifically, he said as long as they were used to "target al-Qaeda and their bases," without "collateral damage," Iraqis would welcome them.
That same month, Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. Iraq Lukman Faily reiterated Iraq's interest in drones. "The reason we're now considering drone support is because we need to get better control of the sky so we can track and destroy al-Qaeda camps in the country," Faily told The Cable.
It's not hard to understand why they'd be interested in the unmanned aircraft. On Monday, the detonation of 15 car bombs in Baghdad left dozens dead in an event that would've shocked any other country not embroiled in a civil war. However, in Iraq, it was only the 38th such atrocity in the last 12 months. In 2013 alone, Iraq is averaging 68 car bombings a month. The United Nations reports that 5,740 civilians were killed since January, which is almost two times more deaths than recorded in all of 2010.
Despite the staggering numbers, the U.S. isn't about to open up a new drone war in Iraq. An administration official tells The Cable the use of lethal drones has not been discussed nor is it even under consideration for Iraq.
Optimism about the possibility of improved U.S.-Iran relations, fueled by the election of the moderate Hasan Rouhani and a series of positive signals from both countries' governments, is running up against the hard realities of what it would take to get a nuclear deal done and provoking resistance from powerful constituencies on both sides. Despite a recent charm offensive by U.S. President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Iran has yet to offer any concrete concessions on uranium enrichment. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, is equally ambivalent about providing sanctions relief to Iran, in part because of deep skepticism from Israel, which has sought to throw cold water on any possible deal.
In an early sign that the spark may be fading, a heavily hyped handshake between Obama and Rouhani did not materialize on Tuesday, when the Iranian delegation failed to show up for a luncheon hosted by the U.N. secretary-general. An informal meeting between the two presidents, something the White House last week hinted it was open to, would have been the first encounter between a U.S. and Iranian president since Iran's 1979 revolution.
Hours before the luncheon -- which reportedly featured tuna tartare with avocado and salted caramel chocolate mousse -- Obama told the U.N. General Assembly that the United States and Iran "should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful."
"The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," the president said, adding that he would dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to work with allies to lay the groundwork for a deal.
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U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that U.N. weapons inspectors have obtained "overwhelming" evidence that chemical weapons were used in an Aug. 21 attack that killed large numbers of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria. The inspection team, according to a U.N.-based diplomatic source, has uncovered traces of the nerve agent sarin, a key agent in the chemical weapons arsenal of President Bashar al-Assad's government.
"I believe that the report will be an overwhelming report that chemical weapons were used, even though I cannot say it publicly at this time," Ban said. Ban -- who made the remarks in a speech before the Women's International Forum -- thought he was speaking in a closed-door meeting. But the session was being broadcast live on an internal U.N. television feed.
It's the first time the United Nations has officially declared that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. And the acknowledgment comes two days before the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector, the Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, is scheduled on Sunday to present the U.N. chief with a report on his team's findings in Syria. Ban will present a briefing on the team's finding to the U.N. Security Council on Monday morning at 11 a.m.
One of the Senate's most powerful Democrats has some advice for top Obama administration officials: take your collective feet out of your collective mouths when you're talking about Syria.
Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said recent comments by Secretary of State John Kerry and Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken undercut the Obama administration's negotiating position with Damascus and made it even harder for the White House to sell a war-weary American public on potential military strikes against Syria.
"There are a number of things that have been said that I think are not helpful at all, including some by Kerry," Levin told reporters today.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American military strike by giving up his chemical weapons, an unscripted and off-handed remark that triggered a mad day of diplomatic scrambling and raised the first real prospect of a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis.
Speaking in London this morning, Kerry said Assad had one way, and one way only, of preventing the Obama administration from launching a military intervention into his country.
"Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week -- turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting," Kerry said. "But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki tried to walk back Kerry's comments almost immediately after he uttered them, describing the remarks as a "rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used."
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It was meant to be a softball question. Would the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked, sign off on legislation barring ground troops from being sent to Syria? The White House had been making that exact guarantee for days, and Kerry had been sent to Capitol Hill to reiterate the promise to a panel of skeptical lawmakers. He somehow messed up the answer all the same.
"It would be preferable not to" insert that kind of language into a formal congressional authorization for military strikes into Syria, Kerry said. He cited a range of hypotheticals, from Syria imploding to chemical weapons falling into the hands of the country's Islamist rebels, where the U.S. might need to take strong steps to prevent catastrophe. "I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country," Kerry said.
Kerry realized his mistake almost immediately and quickly assured the lawmakers that the administration was fine with a ban on ground troops. "Let's shut that door now as tight as we can," he said. He wasn't able to put the genie back in the bottle, though. Over the course of the four-hour hearing, Republican after Republican asked Kerry to promise that the administration wouldn't do something it had already promised not to do.
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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused Russia of supplying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with chemical weapons, the most eyebrow-raising moment in a long and sometimes strange hearing that included the Obama administration's first estimate of the financial cost of a potential U.S. strike on Syria, a detailed description of the U.S. target list, and a Republican congressman's meandering attempt to link Syria to the consolate attack in Benghazi and the Justice Department's "Fast and Furious" scandal.
First, Russia. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) -- best known for screaming "you lie" at President Obama during a State of the Union address -- made the most news at today's hearing when he asked Hagel where Assad had gotten his chemical weapons.
"Well, the Russians supply them," Hagel responded. "Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves."
Reports that Russia has been selling chemical weapons to Assad -- or at least providing the ingredients and equipment his scientists needed to make them -- have been floating around for years, but Hagel's comments marked one of the first times a high-ranking American official made the charge publicly.
The comments were later walked back by Pentagon Press Secretary George Little, who in a statement to reporters said: "In a response to a member of Congress, Secretary Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia. The Syrian regime has a decades-old largely indigenous chemical weapons program. Currently, Russia provides the Syrian regime a wide variety of military equipment and support, some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program. We have publicly and privately expressed our concern over the destabilizing impact on the Syrian conflict and the wider region of continued military shipments to the Assad regime."
The allegation is likely to further exacerbate U.S.-Russian tensions over Syria, which spiked this week after Russian President Vladimir Putin came out in strong opposition to a potential American intervention into Syria.
Hagel's Russia comments were the most surprising part of the House hearing, but they weren't the only interesting moment on a day when the administration won its first major victory by getting the Senate Foreign Relations Services Committee to sign off, 10-7, on a military strike against Assad. The measure should go to the full Senate next week.
Below, four other highlights from from the House session:
Military Strikes On The Cheap: Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the limited military strikes envisioned by the administration would cost "tens of millions of dollars," the Pentagon's first public estimate of the financial price of hitting Assad.
It's a surprisingly low number given that U.S. air operations in Libya, a country with far less sophisticated air defenses than Syria, cost roughly $1 billion. A U.S. official stood by Hagel's estimate, telling The Cable that "we're taking millions and not billions for this operation." If those numbers are accurate, the potential U.S. strikes on Syria would be exceptionally modest in both scope and duration. Proponents of the strike have talked about an attack that might cost a couple hundred million. Could this plan be even smaller than previously imagined?
Military Strikes On Someone Else's Tab: Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Arab League wasn't willing to formally request a U.S. strike on Syria, but said key Arab powers were prepared to do perhaps the next best thing: pick up the tab for the entire cost of the operation.
"With respect to Arab countries offering to bear costs and to assess, the answer is profoundly yes," Kerry said. "They have. That offer is on the table."
In fact, Kerry said, Arab countries were willing to open their checkbooks wide.
"Some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we've done it previously in other places, they'll carry that cost," Kerry said. "That's how dedicated they are at this. That's not in the cards, and nobody's talking about it, but they're talking in serious ways about getting this done."
Kerry also gamely insisted that so many U.S. allies wanted to take part in a potential strike on Syria that the Pentagon couldn't find a role for all of them. That seems unlikely, since Turkey and France are to date the only major powers to publicly express a willingness to use military force against Assad. But Kerry may have an elastic definition of "participation." Albania, he said later in the hearing, was willing to provide political support for a strike. He didn't say anything about Albania being willing to do much else.
The Target List: Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided one of the most-detailed breakdowns to date of the military's target list for Syria. He said the overall mission would be to degrade Assad's chemical weapons assets by striking targets "directly linked to the control of chemical weapons but without exposing those chemical weapons to a loss of security." Translated from military-speak, that means doing everything possible to ensure that those weapons didn't fall into the hands of the Islamists flooding into Syria to battle Assad.
Dempsey said other targets would include the "means of delivery" for the weapons, like the rockets and artillery shells that allegedly carried sarin gas into rebel-held areas of Damascus last month, and the country's air defense systems, including its longer-range missile and rockets.
That description closely tracks with recent news reports about the administration considering a target list of roughly 50 sites that would be struck over the course of one to two days. The White House has harshly condemned those leaked war plans and vowed to find those responsible.
Bringing the Crazy: The strangest and most contentious moment of the five-hour hearing came during a heated exchange between Kerry and Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), who accused the administration of having a "serious credibility issue" because of what he said were lingering questions about the White House's handling of Benghazi, the alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department's ill-fated "Fast and Furious" program.
His questioning of Kerry quickly turned personal.
"Mr. Kerry, you have never been one that has advocated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. forces in past conflicts. The same is true for the president and the vice president," he said. "Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you would abandon caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?"
The secretary of state, not surprisingly, didn't take well to the charge. Normally even-keeled, a visibly angry Kerry reminded Duncan that he, Hagel, and Dempsey had all served in the military and cut the congressman off when Duncan tried to interject.
"I'm going to finish, congressman," he said, almost shouting. "I am going to finish."
Kerry said that as a senator he'd supported military action in Grenada and Panama -- conspicuously ignoring his early support for the Iraq war -- and made no attempt to hide that he thought the questions were ludicrous.
"I'm not going to sit here and be told by you that I don't have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this," he said. "We're talking about people being killed by gas and you want to go talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious!"
It remains to be seen whether Duncan will be the only one who wants to dredge up past administration scandals. With public opinion running sharply against any U.S. strike, Republicans seem likely to use any weapon in their arsenal to attack the White House's case for war.
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The Obama administration has invited a senior delegation from the Khartoum regime to visit Washington for high-level discussions, just after the State Department criticized Sudan heavily in its annual country reports on human rights.
The Sudanese Foreign Ministry first announced Tuesday that senior officials from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) had been invited to Washington for consultations. Sudan Tribune, an émigré newspaper based in Paris, paraphrased a Sudanese official citing the "mere presence of diplomatic missions in both countries and meetings of ambassadors" as representing "some degree of dialogue between Khartoum and Washington."
Sudan is among the most-sanctioned countries in the world. President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, Sudan has been on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1993, and the United States imposed additional sanctions in 1997 and then again in 2003, following the outbreak of government-sponsored violence in Darfur.
Sudan advocacy-group leaders were quick to criticize the administration's decision to invite the NCP officials to Washington, where they are expected to discuss ongoing tensions with South Sudan, the upcoming referendum in the contested region of Abyei, and the ongoing violence in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
"United to End Genocide believes that the delegates of Sudan's National Congress Party (NCP) do not deserve to be rewarded by the United States government and invited to Washington, D.C. until they stop committing crimes against the civilians throughout Sudan," said Tom Andrews, the president of the group. "It is imperative that in his new term, President Obama evaluates his previous diplomacy towards Sudan, sets strong policy with clear measures that can help end the suffering of the people of Sudan, and hold the perpetrators accountable before offering rewards."
At Tuesday's State Department press briefing, spokesman Patrick Ventrell acknowledged the invitation but gave few details about why the administration believes it's a good idea to host the Sudanese delegation at this time. He said that presidential adviser Nafie Ali Nafie will lead the delegation, but the exact timing has not been finalized.
"We've planned to receive this delegation for a candid discussion on the conflicts and humanitarian crises within Sudan, including in Darfur and the two areas -- Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, counterterrorism, human rights and other issues of concern to the U.S. government," Ventrell said. "We've also continued to express our deep concern about another -- a number of other issues. While we've had some progress here, you have ongoing aerial bombardment of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and some other areas in terms of Darfur that we're still concerned about. So we've seen some progress, but we still have some concerns and we'll raise them directly with the government."
The delegation announcement comes in the same week that the administration announced it was relaxing some sanctions against Khartoum. The Treasury Department announced April 22 that it would now authorize some professional and educational exchanges with Sudan that had previously been prohibited.
Only three days before relaxing sanctions, the Obama administration heavily criticized Sudan in its annual country reports on human rights practices, released April 19, which documented extreme government-sponsored atrocities and human rights violations.
"The most important human rights abuses included: government forces and government-aligned groups committed extrajudicial and other unlawful killings; security forces committed torture, beatings, rape, and other cruel and inhumane treatment or punishment; and prison and detention center conditions were harsh and life threatening," the State Department report said. "Except in rare cases, the government took no steps to prosecute or punish officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government who committed abuses. Security force impunity remained a serious problem."
Other major abuses in Sudan, according to the State Department, included arbitrary arrest; incommunicado and prolonged pretrial detention; executive interference with the judiciary and denial of due process; obstruction of humanitarian assistance; restriction on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement; harassment of internally displaced persons; restrictions on privacy; harassment and closure of human rights organizations; and violence and discrimination against women. Societal abuses including instances of female genital mutilation; child abuse, including sexual violence and recruitment of child soldiers; trafficking in persons; violence against ethnic minorities; denial of workers' rights; and forced and child labor were also reported.
That report prompted a call from the Sudan advocacy community for the administration to employ stronger pressure mechanisms against Khartoum, rather than offering more incentives like visits to Washington or rewards like an easing of sanctions.
"These atrocities and abuses stem from the many conflicts in Sudan, and point to the need for a comprehensive approach to all of Sudan's conflicts," a group of Sudan advocacy organizations wrote in a letter to Obama April 22. "In addition, given the scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the regime, international donors should not provide significant assistance or debt-relief until real and verifiable steps towards peace and democratic transformation are taken."
These groups, along with several members of Congress, also lament that the president has yet to appoint a special envoy to Sudan to replace Amb. Princeton Lyman, who stepped down late last year. The administration is said to be circling around a couple of candidates, but there's been no announcement as of yet.
"This vacancy is symptomatic of a president that has all but forsaken the people of Sudan," Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) said in a March floor statement. "Candidate Obama purported to be deeply concerned by the crisis in Sudan and committed to bold actions. Have we seen a fraction of that concern or anything close to bold action since he became president?"
ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. John McCain sounded a civil note at the beginning of his remarks at a Center for a New American Security event on Thursday, April 18. "What Republicans need now is a vigourous contest on ideas on national security and foreign policy," he told a group of military, foreign policy, and business professionals. "This contest can and should be conducted respectfully and without name-calling, which is something an old wacko-bird like me must remember from time to time."
Though he didn't resort to epithets, the rest of the speech featured a series of broadsides against isolationists and non-interventionists of both parties, but especially senators on McCain's own side of the aisle. "When it comes to the politics of national security," McCain said, "my beloved Republican Party has some soul-searching to do."
In particular, McCain singled out his "libertarian friends" who participated in Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster against John Brennan's confirmation as CIA director. "Rather than debate the very real dilemmas of targeted killing," McCain said, "my colleagues chose to focus instead on the theoretical possibility that the president would use a drone to kill Americans on U.S. soil even if they're not engaged in hostilities. As misguided as this exercise was, the political pressures on Republicans to join in were significant, and many ultimately did -- including many who know better."
As a compromise, McCain suggested revising the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which provides the legal justification for the targeted killing program, and codifying drone policy "to preserve, but clarify the commander-in-chief's war powers, while insisting on greater transparency and broader congressional oversight of how these war powers are employed."
He inveighed against the "emergence of a military-industrial-congressional complex that has corrupted and crippled the defense acquisition process," though his critique focused on the runaway costs of projects like the F-35 and Littoral Combat Ship rather than the defense budget writ large, which he has pushed to maintain. He also went after colleagues who have tried to slash foreign aid, pointing out that, "It now seems that every piece of legislation that the Senate considers faces an inevitable amendment that would cut off all our assistance to Egypt or some other critical country. And unfortunately, these kinds of provisions keep winning more and more votes." McCain sounded downright weary as he described "explaining" and "reminding people" of the purpose of foreign aid. "While foreign aid might not make its recipients love us," he noted, "it does further our national security interests and values."
McCain went after colleagues' knee-jerk opposition to the United Nations as well. When asked about the Law of the Sea Treaty, he said, "It's probably not going to come up. Not with the makeup of this Senate, that's the reality. We couldn't even do a disabilities treaty, for God's sake." The problem? Here, McCain got sarcastic. "It's just, you know, it's the 'U.N.' It's the 'U.N.,'" he exclaimed, making air quotes and shrugging.
Despite the critiques of sequestration and U.S. policies on Syria and Iran, President Obama got off pretty easy by comparison. "Right now, the far left and far right in America are coming together in favor of pulling us back from the world," McCain observed. "The president and I have had our differences, many of those differences will persist, but there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my party."
And while McCain seemed uncomfortable with the many rounds of nuclear negotiations with Iran, he said he didn't envy the president's decision on the use of force. "It's going to be probably one of the most difficult decisions the president of the United States has ever had to make," he argued, "and it's very rarely that I'm glad that I'm not the president of the United States, but this is one of [those times]."
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Four different Senate Republicans have four different ideas on how to alter U.S. aid to Egypt, in a struggle that is also becoming about the future of Republican leadership on foreign policy.
The Senate is working now on the next Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government from April until October -- and aid to Egypt is the main foreign policy issue likely to be attached to the funding measure. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), John McCain (R-AZ), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Rand Paul (R-KY) all have introduced amendments to the CR dealing with Egypt aid, but they all have competing ideas on how to condition it in light of Egypt's changing security challenges and the fragile path to democracy under the government led by Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsy.
Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has also introduced an amendment on Egypt aid, making it five total amendments that are now the subject of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations.
"We have five different amendments that have been offered on Egypt," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said on the Senate floor Thursday, lamenting that the Senate was confronted with tackling the Egypt aid issue in a rush on a temporary funding bill. Reid doesn't really want to do Egypt policy on this bill at all.
"This is a CR for six months. We have a functioning Foreign Relations Committee. That's where this should take place," he said. "We all have concerns about Egypt. Our funding in Egypt, maintaining stability in the region, supporting Israel. We have, as I've indicated, five senators who have filed five separate, distinct amendments. And literally staffs with senators have worked all day coming up with an amendment that Democrats and Republicans could agree on. It hasn't been done. Doesn't mean it can't be done, but it hasn't been done. I would again remind senators that this is a Continuing Resolution. The long-term solution to the situation in the Middle East is not a short-term CR. Whatever we do on this bill would expire in six months anyway."
But despite Reid's reluctance, senators are likely to coalesce around one or two Egypt aid amendments that could get a vote on the Senate floor next week. The first senator to introduce an Egypt amendment was Rubio, who spoke about it in an interview this week with The Cable.
"This is not about cancelling foreign aid to Egypt per se. This is about restructuring it in a way that lines up with the interests of the taxpayers of the United States of America," Rubio said. "Their real security needs are largely internal and we want to recalibrate our military aid to Egypt to meet their actual needs. Egypt doesn't need tanks, it doesn't need jet fighters, it's not going to be invaded by neighbors in the near future."
For Rubio, the Egypt amendment is his opening salvo in what promises to be a year of increasing involvement in an array of foreign policy issues. He promised he would have similar amendments in the future on aid to other countries as well.
"Foreign aid is important because it increases our influence and in particular our ability to influence things around the world to advance our interests. But foreign aid is not charity.... That means that every single dime we give in foreign aid should be conditioned," he said.
Rubio is also concerned about the Morsy government's commitment to the Camp David accords, their unwillingness or inability to maintain security in the Sinai Peninsula, and their treatment of opposition parties and non-governmental organizations.
"We've heard some of the comments of the president of Egypt and some of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's downright offensive, and that's their ideology and we've seen some of that come through in their public policy," he said.
Rubio's original amendment would have blocked disbursements of economic support funds (ESF) and new foreign military financing for Egypt until the administration could certify that the Morsy government was enacting economic and political reforms, not restricting religious and human rights, not undermining free and fair elections, improving its treatment of foreign NGOs, fully implementing the peace treaty with Israel, taking all available actions to end smuggling into Gaza and combat terrorism in the Sinai.
The Rubio amendment required the administration to certify that the government of Egypt had apportioned specific amounts of aid to counterterrorism and the Sinai but gave the administration the authority to waive the new aid restrictions every six months.
The McCain amendment takes a different, less confrontational approach. It only would impact foreign military financing, not economic support funds, and clearly states that any change in Egypt military aid should only affect new contracts, not existing contracts for items already in the manufacturing pipeline.
The McCain amendment requires the administration to report back to Congress about how the Egyptian military is spending the money and how it might be spent better in the security interests of both Egypt and the United States. But there's no cut off of aid and no waiver authority. Last year, Egyptians got angry when Congress imposed new restrictions on military aid to Cairo, only to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waive them anyway.
After McCain filed his amendment, Rubio made some changes to his amendment to bring it closer in line with McCain's. Rubio's new amendment now conditions ESF funds in a way that's closer to what's already in present law. Backroom negotiations between the two offices are ongoing.
The Leahy amendment is seen as the Democrats' attempt to take what they liked of the Republican amendments and try to reach a compromise text. It most closely follows McCain's approach by requiring the administration to report on the military aid spending but also requires the administration to report on political reform, human rights, and NGO treatment in Egypt.
Paul's amendment would cut off all assistance to Egypt until Morsy says in English and Arabic that he intends to uphold the Camp David accords. Inhofe's amendment would conditionally suspend the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. Inhofe has also co-sponsored the Paul amendment.
"For months, I have been calling for President Obama and his administration to hold president Morsy accountable for failing to promote promised democracy in Egypt and for the instability in the region," Inhofe said on the Senate floor this week. "Under President Morsy and his radical Muslim Brotherhood, the United States' historically good relationship with Egypt is at a standstill."
This year's election will likely usher in major changes in Congress on foreign policy and national security, regardless of which party ends up on top once all the ballots are counted and the winners declared.
Pollsters don't expect a sea change in either branch of Congress this year. According to the Real Clear Politics website, which compiles polling data on every race, Democrats have 46 safe or non-contested Senate seats heading into the election, compared with the Republicans' 43, with 11 races classified as "toss ups." RCP's House polling discounts virtually any possibility that Democrats could take over there. The site's average "generic ballot" shows that Republicans have half a percentage-point lead among voters in general, further suggesting that there will be no major shift in the balance of power on Capitol Hill.
But several key committee leadership posts are changing hands, influential leaders are exiting Washington, and a new crop of national security lawmakers is looking to fill their void. The result could be a Congress that has less experience and fewer incentives to work across the aisle or cooperate with the executive branch, playing an increasing role of the spoiler in foreign policy.
A number of influential senators are leaving at the end of this year. When they depart, Congress could lose much of the expertise that they and their staffs have accumulated over decades of service. In the House, both the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) could change, as could the GOP leadership slot on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) will have at least one new leader, and maybe two, by the end of 2013.
"There are several lawmakers leaving who had been a leading voice on several foreign policy issues over a long period of time," a senior Senate foreign-policy staffer told The Cable. "It's not just the institutional knowledge; it's the relationships they have around the world as well. The Senate's going to be a profoundly different place without them."
One retiring senator with outsized influence is Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who played a leading role in Republican attempts to thwart President Obama's nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
"One senator can make a difference in this system and when that senator dies, retires, or is defeated, that could have a big impact. Such will be the case with Jon Kyl," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World (CLW), which advocates on issues related to nuclear proliferation.
CLW has been on the opposite side of Kyl on issues including missile defense, nuclear weapons, arms control, and several other topics. The council is also raising funds for several Democratic House and Senate candidates around the country.
But Isaacs has a grudging respect for his chief adversary. "Kyl really was an expert on nuclear weapons and he was effective. He almost single-handedly defeated the Congressional Test Ban Treaty in 1999," Isaacs said. "The anti-arms control crowd will suffer a real loss."
Kyl not only led the GOP caucus on missile defense and nuclear weapons, he used his leadership position to head the opposition to New START in 2010 and he was a key critic of the Russian "reset." His office often held up State Department nominees. Under Obama, he has generally steered the GOP caucus toward confrontation with the White House, commandeering issues away from the ranking Republican on the SFRC Richard Lugar (R-IN), who was more amenable to crossing the aisle.
Lugar won't be returning next year either, as he lost his primary race to Richard Murdouk, who is locked in a tight race with Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-IN). Lugar dutifully led the more realist and less interventionist side of the caucus; he opposed the war in Libya and opposes more U.S. involvement in Syria. Perhaps due to his bipartisan inclinations on foreign policy, he was somewhat marginalized toward the end of his tenure by his own party leadership.
Lugar with likely be replaced as the SFRC's ranking member by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who broadly shares Lugar's worldview but is still building his expertise. "Lugar's a symbol of the way things used to be, bipartisan crossing lines and working with Democrats," Isaacs said, referring to the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program and Lugar's support for New START. "Corker seems to a pragmatist somewhat in the mold of Lugar."
The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), is also retiring this year. Also leaving the Senate are SFRC Asia Subcommittee Chairman and former Navy Secretary Jim Webb (D-VA), who was hugely active on issues such as Burma and U.S. force structure in Korea and Japan, and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), the longtime former chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee and current chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Government Management.
There's no clear replacement for the role that Webb and Lieberman played on Asia-Pacific issues. Both traveled to the region often and those relationships need to be maintained, staffers say.
"The question in the next Congress will be who steps in and fills that leadership role," the senior Senate staffer said.
On the Democratic side of the SFRC, if President Barack Obama is reelected, Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) stands a chance of being nominated to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton next year. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who would have SFRC seniority, would likely decline the chairmanship to hold on to her chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The next Democrat in line would be Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who is running for his second full term in the Senate this year. Menendez is largely progressive but has been known to challenge the administration regarding his three most prized issues: Cuba, Iran, and the Armenian Genocide. Should he be reelected, Menendez would be in a position for press for Iran sanctions more than the administration wants, and he would likely thwart any progress on changing U.S. policy toward Cuba.
One often overlooked wrinkle on the SFRC: If Obama wins a second term and appoints Kerry secretary of state, Massachusetts would hold a special election. If Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) loses to Elizabeth Warren next week, he would the clear frontrunner for Kerry's vacated seat, if he decided to run again. So there's a political risk in appointing Kerry secretary of state.
There may even be more changes coming on the SFRC, because its members often seek to exit the once-prized panel. The SFRC is perceived on the Hill as the weakest of the "Class A" committees, as it has no real control over money and no domestic constituency.
"It tends to be a dumping ground for senators who can't get on other committees that they want," said Isaacs. "That's too bad, but that's the way it is."
At the Senate Armed Services Committee, ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) has reached his term limit and will have to forgo his committee post if the Democrats retain control of the chamber (though he could keep it if Republicans take power). That would likely elevate Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) to the committee leadership spot, which might spell doom for Kerry's personal passion, ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which Inhofe has pledged to prevent. McCain, a former Navy pilot, was amenable to at least debating the agreement.
A set of younger and newer senators are moving to fill the foreign-policy gap left by the departure of the veterans. On the GOP side, emerging leaders including Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Mark Kirk (R-IL). Under McCain's tutelage, Ayotte has been delving into the nuclear portfolio and national security budgeting. Kirk is already a Senate leader on Iran and Israel, with a particular focus on sanctions.
For the Democrats, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) has used his SFRC Africa Subcommittee Chairmanship to its potential. He's a Swahili-speaking, tough-on-Iran lawmaker who occupies the seat once held by vice president and former SFRC chairman Joe Biden. Sen. Bob Casey, as head of the SFRC's Middle East subcommittee, is also becoming more and more active.
As for the House, where Republicans have spent the past two years passing bills that die waiting for Senate action, the GOP is virtually assured to hold onto the gavel.
A few changes are in the works. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has reached her term limit and cannot be chairwoman again next year. In one of the most bitter races, ranking member Howard Berman (D-CA) is trailing fellow Democrat Brad Sherman heading into the final days of the campaign. The competition to fill the vacancies at both leadership posts would play out after the new session begins next year.
But it's the Senate, through its influence over the nominating process, that truly matters.
According to James Lindsay, vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, power is moving away from committee chairs and toward individual senators. A single senator's ability to thwart a major piece of legislation or place a hold on a nominee empowers senators like Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), who use their hold power liberally and are generally unmoved by the ire of their colleagues.
"Congress far less often shapes policy in a positive direction. Their main method of effectiveness is to say ‘no,'" Lindsay said. "The greatest impact will be with those who are willing to use their ability to slow things down."
The House Oversight Committee is demanding answers from the State Department regarding newly discovered documents found in the wreckage of the U.S. mission in Benghazi that reveal U.S. diplomats noticed a Libyan police officer conducting surveillance of the compound the morning before the Sept. 11 attack and that the Benghazi police department had not responded to requests for more security during the visit of Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the attack that night.
Two reporters visiting the burned-out compound more than six weeks after the attack, and weeks after the FBI had visited the site, discovered an array of official and personal items that reveal the state of mind of nervous U.S. officials on the morning of Sept. 11, just hours before a group of well-armed men stormed the compound with heavy weapons, an attack that would ultimate result in the death of four Americans. In an exclusive report for Foreign Policy, journalists Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa revealed two unsigned draft letters written the day of the attack and warning that a Libyan police officer was spotted taking pictures of the compound.
"Finally, early this morning at 0643, September 11, 2012, one of our diligent guards made a troubling report. Near our main gate, a member of the police force was seen in the upper level of a building across from our compound. It is reported that this person was photographing the inside of the U.S. special mission and furthermore that this person was part of the police unit sent to protect the mission," reads the letter, addressed to Mohamed Obeidi, the head of the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs' office in Benghazi.
Obeidi said he never received the letter. Another letter states that U.S. diplomats had asked the Libyan government for added security for Stevens's visit -- security they apparently didn't get.
"On Sunday, September 9, 2012, the U.S. mission requested additional police support at our compound for the duration of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens' visit. We requested daily, twenty-four hour police protection at the front and rear of the U.S. mission as well as a roving patrol. In addition we requested the services of a police explosive detection dog," the letter reads. "We were given assurances from the highest authorities in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that all due support would be provided for Ambassador Stevens' visit to Benghazi. However, we are saddened to report that we have only received an occasional police presence at our main gate. Many hours pass when we have no police support at all."
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and National Security Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who have been leading a congressional investigation into the security failures surrounding the attack, fired off a letter today to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the new revelations, obtained by The Cable.
The congressmen are demanding to know whether the Benghazi mission's concerns about Libyan police surveillance and their unanswered requests for more Libyan government security assistance were ever sent to Washington, and if so, why the State Department didn't reveal that before now.
"These documents paint a disturbing picture indicating that elements of the Libyan government might have been complicit in the September 11, 2012 attack on the compound and the murder of four Americans. It also reiterates the fact that the U.S. government may have had evidence indicating that the attack was not a spontaneous event but rather a preplanned terrorist attack that included prior surveillance of the compound as a target," Issa and Chaffetz wrote.
"Given the location where they were found, these documents appear to be genuine and support a growing body of evidence indicating that the Obama Administration has tried to withhold pertinent facts about the 9/11 anniversary attack from Congress and the American people."
The congressmen lamented that important information about the attack is still being discovered by the media and not being given to congressional investigators by the administration. They said the letters call into question repeated State Department claims that there were no warnings before the attack, including when a senior State Department official told reporters Oct. 9 that there had been no security incidents at the consulate that day.
"Everything is calm at 8:30 p.m," the official said during a background briefing. "There's nothing unusual. There has been nothing unusual during the day at all outside."
"These statements appear to be inconsistent with the information included in the documents uncovered by Foreign Policy," Issa and Chaffetz wrote.
The State Department must tell Congress whether the letters were included in any cables, telegrams, or emails and provide copies of those documents "no later than 5:00 p.m. on November 8, 2012," the letter said.
Other documents found at the compound include a printout of an email from Stevens to his political officer regarding the Benghazi visit, a travel itinerary sent to Sean Smith, the other State Department official killed in the attack, and an Aug. 6 copy of the New Yorker addressed to Stevens.
No matter how the election turns out, Tennessee's Bob Corker is likely to be the next top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the entire GOP foreign-policy establishment is gearing up for that now.
With the departure of Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN), who lost his primary race in May, Corker is next in line, and could even become chairman should Republicans take control of the Senate. The ultimate decision is made by the GOP caucus, and while aides caution that nothing is final, Republicans are preparing Corker to be one of their party's leading figures on international affairs.
Not all Republicans are thrilled about Corker assuming control of the GOP side of the committee, however, and there was grumbling at first. Neoconservatives and hawks note that Corker has been a moderate voice on foreign policy as a committee member, often expressing a more cautious and non-interventionist note than some of his more hawkish colleagues, and has bucked the GOP leadership in some cases, such as when he voted in favor of Obama's nuclear arms treaty with Russia, New START, at the end of 2010.
But Corker has been quietly and doggedly reaching out to Republican foreign policy hands of all stripes, meeting them for briefings, salon dinners, and one-on-one encounters, both to hear their views and assure them he will represent the entire caucus if he gets the nod.
In an interview with The Cable, Corker said he wants the job, that he has been making preliminary preparations just in case he gets it, and that he has a vision of restoring the committee to a place of renewed prominence in the foreign-policy discussion in Washington and around the world.
"We understand the decision about who leads the Foreign Relations Committee is up to the caucus, but in the event I end up being the person, quietly we've done a significant amount of travel throughout the world to understand issues more deeply, we've had meetings and briefings with numbers of people with varying backgrounds and have really tried to immerse ourselves in such a way that if I am the person, I have the ability to be effective," Corker said.
Without much fanfare, Corker has visited 48 countries since taking office, often traveling commercial. He has been to Syria, Lebanon, Libya, India, Russia, Georgia, Afghanistan (3 times), Pakistan (3 times), and Iraq (3 times). Here in Washington, he's been meeting with conservatives and realists alike. Some of his briefings and social events have been organized by the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka, a former staffer for SRFC chairman Jesse Helms, who declined to comment for this article.
Corker has also been thinking hard about new professionals to bring on to the SFRC, be it on the majority or minority staff. Several of Lugar's aides have already departed, and Corker could be building a new team largely from scratch. Right now, Corker is advised on national security primarily by Stacie Oliver, a former staffer for Sen. Chuck Hagel, but he will need a lot more help if and when he becomes a committee leader.
His charm offensive seems to be working. A top GOP foreign-policy hand who was initially wary of Corker said his outreach seems to be convincing even hawkish Republicans that they will have the senator's ear and that Corker would represent the whole caucus, not just its moderate wing.
"Senator Corker's team has done a good job of reaching out to the conservative foreign-policy community and outlining his goals for the committee if he is given the opportunity to serve in a leadership role," the GOP foreign-policy hand said.
Corker is careful not to be too presumptuous about getting the job. One senior GOP senator and avowed hawk, James Inhofe (R-OK), is known to oppose the idea. Inhofe's office did not respond to requests for comment, but multiple GOP Senate aides told The Cable that Inhofe has been considering challenging Corker's ascendancy when the issue comes to a head after the election.
The Cable has learned that Inhofe actually mounted a challenge to Lugar after the 2010 election, forcing a vote among the SFRC Republican members that Lugar narrowly won. Inhofe hasn't yet decided whether to try that again with Corker, but this time the internal caucus politics are more complicated than they were two years ago.
Inhofe, who is on the SFRC, may not want to take the ranking job on that committee because he is slated to be the ranking Republican of the Senate Armed Services Committee next year now that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has reached his term limit. Inhofe is next in line and would naturally prefer a leadership role on SASC, which is far more powerful than the SFRC.
If Inhofe did want to challenge Corker, he would need a proxy to support. The natural candidates are Sen. James Risch (R-ID) and rising star Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). But nothing could be done until at least December and as time goes by, the enthusiasm for mounting a fight against Corker is waning, Senate aides said.
Corker's foreign-policy views are often much more cautious than those of the Senate GOP caucus as a whole. Earlier this year, for example, he questioned whether the Syrian revolution was really about "democracy." In April, he worked to make sure Congress was not endorsing lethal aid to the Syrian opposition and actively supporting the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"I think it's odd to state as a national policy that we want to see Assad gone," Corker said.
His vote for New START was attacked by the conservative Heritage Foundation. He authored an amendment to the Magnitsky bill that would have placed sunsets on the penalties for Russian human rights violators. He later withdrew that amendment.
More recently, however, Corker has been aggressive in challenging the Obama administration to be more transparent and forthcoming about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. He is also pushing for an independent congressional investigation into the matter.
Corker's style is usually not confrontational. He opposed ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty last year, but initially declined to sign a letter joined by dozens of Senate Republicans outright opposing the treaty, instead arguing that it was simply not a priority for the Senate in 2012.
One concern some colleagues have about Corker is whether he would challenge Obama's nominees, should the president be reelected. Corker, who touts his experience as a former executive in business, often defers to the president's prerogative over personnel and has only voted against Obama nominees twice. He is likely to use the power to hold nominees sparingly, but is expected to make sure that nominations that he does hold are duly spiked.
Corker told The Cable that his main project would be make sure the SFRC is fulfilling its mandate of overseeing foreign policy and guiding the State Department's activities. He pledged to make sure the Senate passes a State Department authorization bill, something that hasn't happened since 2005. He also wants the committee to do big thinking over the horizon.
"I hope to be able to work with others to make the Foreign Relations Committee more relevant. We want to review everything that's being done at the State Department, which hasn't been done in decades," he said. "In regard to our national interests, the Foreign Relations Committee could be a place where we look at our national interests in the context of the longer view and be a buffer against the ‘hair on fire' mentality that can exist in White Houses."
For the GOP foreign-policy community, that would be a welcome development.
"There is a lot of interest on and off the Hill in seeing SFRC become a committee once again that senators aspire to serve on, that doesn't pull its punches, and fulfills its oversight responsibilities after years of drift," the GOP foreign-policy hand said.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) suggested Tuesday that President Bill Clinton is getting more and more active in politics this cycle in preparation for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to run for the presidency in 2016.
"I would never think such a thing and I am certainly not Machiavellian, but I am told that there are some that think this may have a lot to do with 2016 and the president's wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton," McCain said Tuesday morning. "Of course I would never suspicion such a thing, but there are some real jerks around who think that might be the case."
McCain was speaking on a conference call following Monday night's debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He said Obama is using President Clinton more and more in the campaign because Romney is gaining in the polls.
"I think [President Clinton's] appeal is obviously there and I don't think it's an accident that as Mitt Romney has surged in the polls there has been increase in the activities of President Clinton," he said.
In a recent interview with Marie Claire, Clinton repeated that she does not plan to run for president in 2016.
"I have been on this high wire of national and international politics and leadership for 20 years," Clinton said. "It has been an absolutely extraordinary personal honor and experience. But I really want to just have my own time back. I want to just be my own person. I'm looking forward to that."
McCain also addressed Obama's comments ridiculing Romney for comparing the size of the U.S. Navy today to its size during World War I.
"I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You -- you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets -- because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines," Obama said. "And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's what are our capabilities."
McCain said that Obama's highly touted rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region was an effort that requires robust ship presence and he said that if defense cuts under sequestration are allowed to take place, shipbuilding industries will suffer across the county and jobs will be lost.
"That was both demeaning to Mitt Romney and it also showed a degree of ignorance on the part of the president," McCain said. "You need naval presence the same way you did back then. Then to justify a steady reduction in shipbuilding, it shows a misunderstanding of the size of the challenge we face in the Asia-Pacific region."
McCain said that Romney had passed the commander-in-chief test at Monday's debate.
"The question in a lot of people's minds before this debate was: Is Mitt Romney capable of being the commander in chief?" McCain said. "I think he achieved that goal last night. I think he made it very clear to Americans, principally women, that he's not going to get us into other conflicts, that he understands the war-weariness of the American people over Iraq and Afghanistan. But he has also pointed out that we are weaker than we were four years ago, and of course in the Middle East that's absolutely true."
McCain did not mention that he supports U.S. airstrikes and the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria.
During Tuesday's debate, President Barack Obama tempered his claims about U.S. success in fighting al Qaeda, jettisoning his oft-repeated campaign-trail claim that the terrorist organization is "on its heels."
"I said that I'd end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said we'd refocus attention on those who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have gone after Al Qaeda's leadership like never before and Osama bin Laden is dead," Obama said during his second debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
That paragraph is part of Obama's regular stump speech, and he made nearly identical remarks at two campaign stops last week. But in those previous instances, Obama said that al Qaeda was "on its heels," a claim he didn't repeat in front of Tuesday night's national audience.
"Four years ago, I made a few commitments to you. I told you I'd end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said I'd end the war in Afghanistan, and we are. I said we'd refocus on the people who actually attacked us on 9/11 -- and today, al Qaeda is on its heels and Osama bin Laden is no more," he said in a campaign stop in San Francisco on Oct. 9.
Two days later, in another campaign stop in Miami, Obama said nearly the same thing.
"Four years ago, I told you we'd end the war in Iraq -- and we did. I said that we'd end the war in Afghanistan -- and we are. I said that we'd refocus on the people who actually attacked us on 9/11 -- and today, al Qaeda is on its heels and Osama bin Laden is dead," he said.
The attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi on 9/11 was reportedly the work of the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is thought to have ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM).
This month, the White House has been slowly but surely adding qualifications to its claims of progress in destroying al Qaeda, which has seen its ranks in North Africa increase recently.
For example, on Sept. 19 White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama's strategy in Afghanistan has "allowed us to take the fight to al Qaeda in the region in a way that we had not been able to before; that led to the decimation of al Qaeda's leadership."
By Oct. 10, after reports emerged tying al Qaeda links the Benghazi attack, Carney was specifying that al Qaeda "central" was hurting in two specific countries.
"Well, what we have said all along, what the president has said all along, is that ... progress has been made in decimating the senior ranks of al Qaeda and in decimating al Qaeda central in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region," adding that al Qaeda "remains our No. 1 foe."
Carney repeated his qualification that al Qaeda is hurting in Southwest Asia, but not necessarily in North Africa, two days later.
"[Obama] has made clear that he would refocus attention on what was a neglected war in Afghanistan, refocus our mission on al Qaeda, and decimating al Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- he has," Carney said Oct. 12.
In his debate Oct. 11, Vice President Joe Biden also declined to say that al Qaeda was completely decimated or on its heels during his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan.
"The fact is we went [to Afghanistan] for one reason: to get those people who killed Americans -- al Qaeda," Biden said "We decimated al Qaeda central; we have eliminated Osama bin Laden. That was our purpose."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
The top echelon of Mitt Romney‘s national security transition team is largely in place and it includes both hawkish and centrist GOP foreign-policy professionals, The Cable has learned.
The news comes as debate continues inside the Romney campaign over how much to focus on foreign vs. domestic policy in the home stretch. Politico reported last week that chief strategist Stuart Stevens was leading the camp pushing for a more singular focus on the economy.
But with the final presidential debate set to focus on foreign policy and events in the Middle East continuing to raise questions about President Barack Obama's leadership, those advocating for more foreign policy campaigning have won a victory: Romney will give what the campaign is billing as a major speech on foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday, Oct. 8.
Behind the scenes, planning for a national security team that looks suddenly more realistic after Wednesday night's debate is moving along at a steady pace.
The Romney campaign doesn't talk publicly about its broader transition-planning effort -- "Project Readiness," led by former HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt -- but the effort is moving along steadily.
The GOP foreign-policy world was caught off guard when Leavitt chose former World Bank President Bob Zoellick to lead the national security transition planning, setting off speculation that Romney's national security team after the election would be far more moderate than the top advisors informing his foreign-policy speeches and agenda items during the campaign.
But The Cable has learned from multiple sources close to the campaign that campaign senior advisor for defense and foreign policy Rich Williamson has been named the head of the transition team for the National Security Council, giving him a prominent role should Romney win. Two other officials who are leading the national security transition effort are former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman and former New Jersey governor and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission Tom Kean.
Some inside the campaign believe Williamson's new role as head of the NSC transition team could place him in line to be national security advisor in a Romney administration. A former assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs who served as George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan, Williamson has been one of Romney's most visible national security surrogates throughout the campaign. Said to be close to the governor personally, he has also been the voice of some of the campaign's harshest criticisms of Obama's handling of foreign policy. Williamson has railed against Obama for his handling of Libya, the greater Middle East, Israel, Iran, Russia, human rights, and several other topics.
Transition team leaders don't necessarily end up leading the agencies for which they are in charge of planning. In 2008, the Obama campaign's State Department transition team was led by Tom Donilon and Wendy Sherman. Obama chose Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state, Donilon became deputy national security advisor, and Sherman returned to the private sector, only later being appointed to be under secretary of State for political affairs.
The Obama campaign's Pentagon transition team was led by Michèle Flournoy and former Deputy Defense Secretary John White, but Obama chose to stick with Robert Gates as defense secretary and Flournoy became the under secretary of defense for policy.
Edelman, a leading representative of the neoconservative wing of the Republican foreign-policy establishment, was under secretary of defense for policy under Donald Rumsfeld and now sits on the board of directors of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neoconservative-leaning foreign-policy organization in Washington. Edelman has been quietly active in the campaign for some time.
Kean, like Zoellick, is seen as a moderate, and has not been a visible part of the Romney effort thus far. Zoellick, meanwhile has been meeting all over Washington with foreign-policy hands of all stripes and from both parties. Last month he was spotted in downtown DC eateries on separate occasions lunching with Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol and Obama's former top Asia aide, Jeffrey Bader.
Sources inside the campaign report that the foreign-policy process still centers around young lawyer Alex Wong, the campaign's foreign-policy coordinator, and his boss Lanhee Chen, the campaign's policy director. Former Iraq war spokesman Dan Senor, another board member of FPI, has taken the lead on Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan's foreign-policy preparations, which perhaps explains Ryan's increasingly combative rhetoric when talking about Obama's handling of the Middle East crises.
Two top senators on the Foreign Relations Committee don't want to wait for the State Department to do its own investigation into the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens; they want Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to show them Stevens's diplomatic cables and other correspondence now.
"While we appreciate the sensitivities associated with this ongoing investigation, we must insist on more timely information regarding the attacks and the events leading up to the attacks," wrote Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Johnny Isaakson (R-GA) in a letter to Clinton Tuesday.
They acknowledged that Clinton is in the process of setting up an Accountability Review Board, although its chairman former Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Pickering said Monday that the panel hasn't started it work yet. But the senators don't want to wait for the board to finish its report, which might not be transmitted to Congress until next spring.
"To that end, we request that you transmit to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee all communications between the U.S. Mission to Libya and the State Department relevant to the security situation in Benghazi in the period leading up to the attacks, including, but not limited to, cables sent from Ambassador Stevens," they wrote.
The senators noted that Libya officials have said they warned the U.S. government about rising threats in Benghazi just before the attacks and they referenced the CNN reports, culled at least partially from Stevens's personal diary, stating that the ambassador believed his life was in danger.
"Despite these warnings, the State Department sought and received a waiver from the standard security requirements for the consulate," the senators wrote.
"We are extremely concerned about conflicting reports over the events leading up to the attacks. Specifically, we are concerned over the apparent lack of security preparations made despite a demonstrable increase in risks to U.S. officials and facilities in Benghazi in the period leading up to the attacks."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was all set to get his full Senate vote today on his bill to cut all U.S. aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan; and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was set to get a vote on his resolution to establish the sense of the Senate that containment of a nuclear Iran is not an option for U.S. policy.
But the entire deal was derailed by a last-minute effort by Senate leaders to add a new bill to the agreement, a "Sportsman Act" sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), who is up for re-election. Tester's bill would ease restrictions on hunting, fishing, and shooting on federal public lands.
On Thursday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that he had worked out a deal with Paul to move on all of the Senate's outstanding business this afternoon, including a continuing resolution to fund the government past Oct. 1. Under the deal, Paul would get one hour of debate and a vote on his bill to cut all U.S. aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan. There would also be a one-hour debate on the containment resolution, which was also led by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Bob Casey (D-PA). (Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had objected to the deal late Wednesday but lifted his objection Thursday.)
Then suddenly Thursday afternoon, Reid announced there would be no more votes and he took a swipe a Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), accusing him of wanting to avoid his evening debate with challenger Elizabeth Warren.
Multiple senators and staffers said late Thursday that it was Reid, however, who derailed the deal at the last minute by attempting to add the Tester bill, prompting an objection by the GOP Senate leadership.
"Today, [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell has agreed to the same UC [unanimous consent agreement] that was offered last night by Senator Reid, but now Senator Reid wants a UC that includes not just the Paul, Graham, and [continuing resolution] votes, but also a vote on the Tester amendment," Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said Thursday afternoon.
All Senate business is on hold while the leadership of both caucuses negotiates behind closed doors. Paul had repeatedly threatened to oppose unanimous consent to move any legislation unless he got his vote, so without a deal, Senate leaders would have to go through long voting procedures that could keep lawmakers in town well into the weekend.
Senators do hope to leave town this weekend, so a deal Friday is widely expected. A deal would also pave the way for the Senate to confirm a host of ambassadors before leaving Washington, including the nominees for envoy posts in Iraq and Pakistan.
The containment resolution has more than 80 co-sponsors and is expected to pass by a wide margin. The Paul bill to prohibit aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan is not expected to pass.
Lawmakers and Africa hands rallied Thursday behind President Barack Obama's decision to nominate Robert Godec to be the next U.S. ambassador to Kenya.
If confirmed, Godec would follow Obama confidant J. Scott Gration, who resigned in June ahead of a scathing internal report that rated him among the worst ambassadors in the diplomatic corps (Gration insists he was a great ambassador).
Unlike Gration, a political appointee, Godec is a career Foreign Service officer who has previously led an embassy -- in Tunisia -- and has diplomatic experience working in the Nairobi embassy as well. Godec is the charge d'affaires at the Kenya embassy now, and served as the State Department's principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism from 2009 to 2012.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs Subcommittee, told The Cable that he will push to confirm Godec as quickly as possible when the Senate returns for a lame-duck session following the November elections.
"Ambassador Godec is a smart choice and I hope the Senate will move quickly to advance his nomination," said Coons. "Given the emerging threats in the region, his background in counterterrorism and career in the Foreign Service -- even being stationed in Nairobi earlier in his career -- make him unquestionably qualified for this critically important role. One of the United States' top priorities, certainly in the short term, will be helping ensure Kenya's elections in March are free, fair, and peaceful. These elections are critically important not only to Kenya, but to the stability of the region."
The upcoming elections and the potential for explosive political violence are a key focus of Kenya watchers in Washington. Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report stating that politicians seeking office have been complicit on both sides of the growing violence in Kenya's coastal region, with the central government doing little to hold them accountable.
"I'm very pleased to see President Obama officially nominate a new U.S. ambassador to Kenya, particularly a Foreign Service officer with regional and country specific experience like Ambassador Godec. That's going to very important in order to reverse what's been a worrisome U.S. policy of neglect and drift," said Sarah Margon, deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch and co-chair of the Kenya Working Group. "What he's going to need to do is make a clear commitment to a U.S. policy based on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, particularly given the upcoming elections. And he needs to address lack of accountability for the political violence in Kenya."
Prior to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the State Department and the Marines Corps had been discussing deploying Marines to guard the U.S. Embassy in the Libyan capital Tripoli "sometime in the next five years," according to the Marine Corps.
The issue of security at U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya has been front and center as Congress and others begin to investigate whether or not those facilities were sufficiently protected before the attacks that killed Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The State Department won't discuss the specifics of its security posture in Libya before the attack, but the Marine Corps has briefed congressional staffers on the issue, for example in a Sept. 13 email obtained by The Cable.
"Typically, when a new embassy is established, it takes time to grow a new [Marine Corps Embassy Security Group] detachment," wrote Col. Harold Van Opdorp, director of the Marine Senate Liaison office, in the e-mail. "[In conjunction with] the State Department, there is discussion about establishing a detachment in Tripoli sometime in the next five years."
The State Department did not respond to questions about how high the discussion of deploying Marines to Libya reached, whether that discussion amounted to a recognition that Marines were needed there, or why it might take five years to set it up. A Marine Corps FAST team was deployed to protect the embassy on Sept. 12 after the attack and could stay there indefinitely.
According to the Marines, out of the 285-plus U.S. diplomatic security facilities worldwide, 152 have Marine Corps detachments, primarily to protect the facilities and the classified information they contain.
"Overall, the plan is to grow the number of MCESG detachments worldwide to 173. It is also important to note the detachments are charged with protection of the chancery. Perimeter security is the responsibility of the HN [host nation] police/security forces," Van Opdorp wrote.
Many on Capitol Hill are pressing the State Department for details about the exact security arrangements at the Benghazi consulate, contesting the State Department's repeated assertion that there was a "strong" security presence protecting the facility.
One congressional aide told The Cable that the State Department initially reported to Congress that the security personnel at the embassy consisted of an unarmed local security force and six armed Libyan government personnel.
The Washington Guardian reported Wednesday that the two former Navy SEALs who were killed in the attack were not part of the ambassador's security detail but had unspecified security responsibilities related to the consulate and engaged the attackers after the firefight began.
Lawmakers are still trying to get details about the State Department's security posture in Libya and the heads of the Senate Homeland Security Committee have already called on the department to investigate the security failures surrounding the Benghazi attack.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to brief Congress on the issue Thursday afternoon. Earlier this week, she defended the security presence in Benghazi, saying, "Let me assure you that our security in Benghazi included a unit of host government security forces, as well as a local guard force of the kind that we rely on in many places around the world."
Late Wednesday, Pentagon officials briefed House Armed Services Committee members on the Libya attacks, after which Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) said that he was increasingly concerned about the lack of security at U.S. diplomatic posts in Libya.
McKeon said it was "inconceivable" that that there were no military personnel stationed in Benghazi, despite a June bomb attack on the consulate, and he said he was "really concerned about the lack of support that the ambassador had, the lack of protection."
CHARLOTTE - Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) will lacerate Mitt Romney on foreign policy in a major speech tonight at the Democratic National Convention.
"In this campaign, we have a fundamental choice," Kerry will say, according to speech excerpts provided to The Cable. "Will we protect our country and our allies, advance our interests and ideals, do battle where we must, and make peace where we can? Or will we entrust our place in the world to someone who just hasn't learned the lessons of the last decade?"
Kerry will speak on a night peppered with remarks by national security types, including retired Lt. Gen. Walter Dalton, the lieutenant governor of North Carolina, retired Adm. John B. Nathman, and Delaware attorney general and Iraq war veteran Beau Biden, the vice president's son. Following Kerry will be the final events of the convention, including speeches by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Vice President Joe Biden, and President Barack Obama.
Kerry will hit Romney on his positions on a range of national security issues and will hammer the former Massachusetts governor for failing to outline a clear policy on the war in Afghanistan, a word that Romney didn't mention once in last week's acceptance speech.
"It isn't fair to say Mitt Romney doesn't have a position on Afghanistan. He has every position," Kerry will say.
Kerry plans to defend Obama's record on Israel, Iran, Russia, and arms control, and he will push back against the Romney campaign's refrain that Obama doesn't believe in "American exceptionalism."
"Our opponents like to talk about ‘American Exceptionalism.' But all they do is talk. They forget that we are exceptional not because we say we are, but because we do exceptional things," Kerry will say. "The only thing exceptional about today's Republicans is that -- almost without exception -- they oppose everything that has made America exceptional in the first place."
Kerry will point out that Romney criticized the idea of going into Pakistan to pursue Osama bin Laden but Obama gave the order that led to bin Laden's death.
"Ask Osama Bin Laden if he's better off now than he was four years ago!" Kerry will say.
Kerry will also make what The Cable believes is the first mention by either campaign of the only war Obama ever started, the 2011 NATO-led attack on Libya.
"When a brutal dictator promised to kill his own people ‘like dogs', President Obama enlisted our allies, built the coalition, shared the burden -- so that today, without a single American casualty -- Muammar Qaddafi is gone and Libya is free," Kerry will say.
Obama inherited a terrible foreign-policy position from the Bush administration and worked to improve it, Kerry will argue.
"So here's the choice in 2012: Mitt Romney -- out of touch at home, out of his depth abroad, and out of the mainstream?" he will say. "Or Barack Obama -- a president giving new life and truth to America's indispensable role in the world, a commander in chief who gives our troops the tools and training they need in war -- the honor and help they've earned when they come home. A man who will never ask other men and women to fight a war without a plan to win the peace."
In anticipation of Kerry's foreign policy speech, the Romney campaign released a long memo penned by campaign policy director Lanhee Chen entitled, "The Foreign Policy & National Security Failures Of President Obama," which lays out 10 separate lines of attack on the Obama administration's national security record.
"President Obama's failure on the economy has been so severe that it has overshadowed his manifold failures on foreign policy and national security," the memo states. "An inventory of his record shows that by nearly all measures, President Obama has diminished American influence abroad and compromised our interests and values. In no region of the world is the U.S. position stronger than it was four years ago... It is a failed record that no amount of bluster in Charlotte can mask."
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.