Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in South Sudan and Uganda on Friday with Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, and Counselor and Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills. Clinton met with President Salva Kir and Foreign Minister Nhial Deng in Juba, South Sudan, before meeting with President Yoweri Museveni in Kampala, Uganda.
Mitt Romney's foreign-policy and national security qualifications have come under intense scrutiny following the presumptive Republican nominee's controversy-laden trip abroad. In a series of interviews Thursday, several top GOP senators tried their best to explain exactly what Romney's credentials to be commander-in-chief are.
Your humble Cable guy roamed the hallways of the Capitol today, the last day before senators leave town for the five-week August recess, asking any Republicans we could find the same question: What are Mitt Romney's qualifications to be commander-in-chief?
The answers ranged from the fact that he led the state national guard as governor of Massachusetts to his extensive travel abroad to his two years as a missionary in France and his all-around management ability.
When The Cable asked that question to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) in the elevator, who was standing alongside Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), Franken started laughing and said, "I gotta hear this." Johnson is in charge of coordinating policy and messaging between the GOP Senate caucus and the Romney campaign. Johnson took a deep breath, thought about the question for another second, and then replied.
"Listen, he's certainly traveled the world in business, which is good," Johnson said, before another long pause. He then pivoted to the economy. "Mitt Romney understands that if you are going to have strong national security you have to have good economic security and it starts there," Johnson said.
But what about Romney's experiences or credentials to lead the nation's military and foreign policy?
"Listen, you know what his experience is, and there are very few people who run for president who have all kinds of foreign-policy experience," Johnson said. "You rely on a strong foreign-policy team and that's what he'd do as well."
Senate Armed Services Committee member John Cornyn (R-TX) said that Romney will depend on those around him to manage national security and foreign policy.
"Well, of course, nobody who's never been president before has the experience but I think part of it is his leadership qualities and his intelligence and his character that will allow him to listen to the experts and do a good job," he said.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said that Romney was a good manager and argued that the Defense Department, along with the rest of the federal government, could use better management.
"In truth, what maybe the greatest need for America is a commander-in-chief who can manage, who knows has to set priorities, and who can count costs and manage the departments and agencies," said Sessions. "I think the man has judgment. He seems to instinctively understand foreign policy and, of course, he was commander of the national guard."
Senate Armed Services Committee member and rumored vice presidential candidate Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) pointed to Romney's executive experience as governor of Massachusetts.
"First of all, he has been a governor, just like Ronald Reagan was, and that executive experience bodes well when you come into the presidency. And we've got a history in our country that those who have had that executive experience have been able to take on the foreign-policy issues," she said.
"And I also believe his personal educational background and his experience in the private sector and his having turned around the Olympics in Salt Lake -- when you put it together he's very qualified to be commander-in-chief," she added.
Ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-AZ), whose 2008 campaign concluded that Romney had "no foreign policy experience," told The Cable today that Romney's qualifications to be commander-in-chief should be compared to then Sen. Barack Obama's qualifications when he ran for president.
"[Romney] has traveled extensively, beginning with when he was a Mormon missionary," McCain said. "He's had a 25-year relationship with [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu. He's very aware of all of those issues, and as governor of the state of Massachusetts, he dealt a lot with foreign leaders."
"He's got all the right instincts," McCain said. "To me, he's Reaganesque."
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The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that includes a provision reauthorizing the U.S. ban on imports from Burma by a unanimous vote.
The bill reauthorizes the ban on U.S. imports from Burma for three years, with a caveat whereby the president or his delegee, the secretary of state, could decide to wave that prohibition for one year.
Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats, who was in favor of the legislation, said on Tuesday during a speech in Washington that he expected the bill to pass and that it would provide an incentive to the Burmese government to continue with its democratic reforms.
"What we have said all long is that it's action for action," Hormats said about the process of easing sanctions on Burma, which began when President Barack Obama lifted the ban on investing in the country.
"I would find it very surprising if Aung San Suu Kyi and the other reformers thought this was a good idea and Congress got much support for repealing [the lifting of sanctions]," said Hormats.
Senate leaders such as John McCain (R-AZ) are concerned that the state-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which controls all of Burma's oil and gas assets, is notoriously opaque and is known to funnel money to a select few people. In order to increase transparency and reduce corruption, Hormats noted that Burma has agreed to join the Extraction Industries Transparency Initiative, which monitors industry practices and revenue flow. Suu Kyi has frequently cautioned the United States against cooperating with MOGE.
If the Burmese government wants more sanctions lifted, it will have to resolve issues related to the treatment of cultural minorities and release more political prisoners, said Hormats.
"They've released 500," Hormats said. "But there are more."
The undersecretary, who returned from a trip to Burma just over a week ago, emphasized that he saw much cause for optimism about the country's democratic transition.
"The members of the junta who previously ran Burma in a very authoritarian way are now for the most part the vanguard of the reform effort," he explained. "This time, the old guard is the new guard."
Still, there are no guarantees. Escalating tensions and recent violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Burma's Rakhine state has displaced about 80,000 people and killed 78.
"As the president and secretary have said, this is still fragile -- there's no guarantee it's going to continue, but ... we got quite a good feeling that they are committed to doing this," Hormats said about Burma's transition process.
TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/GettyImages
The Obama administration must do more to help the nephew of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, Chen told lawmakers on a visit to the Capitol building Wednesday.
Chen, who was imprisoned and then harassed for years due to his work exposing abuses of China's one-child policy, was allowed to move with his wife and children to New York following his daring April 26 escape from unofficial house arrest and six days of intensive diplomacy while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Beijing in May. He met with more than a dozen lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday to talk about the Chinese government's record on human rights and to plead for help to save his nephew, who remains in prison for allegedly stabbing a thug who broke into his home after Chen's flight to safety.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) hosted Chen at the Capitol and held a press conference along with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ), the congressman who held two hearings on Chen's case in the middle of his May ordeal.
"His example humbles us and reminds us why we cherish freedom so much and why we work so hard to protect it," Boehner said at the press conference after the meeting. "We cannot remain silent when fundamental human rights are being violated ... The Chinese government has a responsibility to do better, and the American government has a responsibility to hold them accountable."
"I am hopeful that the members here with me today will consider how to take action against China. Equality, justice and freedom do not have borders," Chen said through a translator.
In a Thursday interview with The Cable, Smith said that behind closed doors, Chen asked the lawmakers to press the Obama administration to speak up publicly and work actively to secure the release of his nephew, Chen Kegui, who was arrested on the night Chen escaped for stabbing an intruder with a kitchen knife. Chen Kegui has not been heard from since, though he has been accused of attempted murder.
"Chen asked us with the greatest sincerity to work for the release and protection of his nephew," Smith said. "The Obama administration on human rights in general globally has been a failure ... This is just another manifestation of a very weak if not non-existent human rights policy by this administration."
"This charge against my nephew for intentional homicide is totally trumped up. To be charged with this in his own home when defending against intruders is totally irrational and unreasonable," Chen said over the phone when he called into the second congressional hearing in May.
Smith said that Chen will continue to speak out publicly to pressure the Obama administration and the rest of the world to confront China on abuses of the one-child policy, which includes forced abortions. Millions of Chinese were outraged when a picture of a woman next to her forcibly aborted fetus went viral on the Internet last month.
"Chen wants Washington to work for human rights, the rule of law, and protection of women from the one child policy, and speak out against the Chinese government's human rights abuses persistently and consistently with knowledge and depth and not just generic statements that bounce off the Chinese like water off a duck's back," Smith said. "I think you're going to hear a lot more about that from him going forward."
House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) plans to introduce legislation Friday that bans foreign government officials responsible for violating the due-process rights of imprisoned U.S. citizens abroad from traveling in the United States.
Smith announced the move during a subcommittee hearing Wednesday on Jacob Ostreicher, a Brooklyn native who has been held in Bolivia for alleged money laundering since June 2011.
"The United States cannot stand by and simply ‘monitor' the case when our citizens are being held hostage to international human rights standards," said Smith, who visited Ostreicher in June and described him as "extremely frail and weak."
Ostreicher, an entrepreneur, went to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in December 2010 to take over the management of a rice business he co-owns from a local manager after investors suspected she was embezzling money from the venture.
The manager had disappeared by the time Ostreicher arrived, but before leaving she had purchased land from alleged Brazilian drug kingpin Maximilliano Dorado, who briefly lived in Bolivia.
Bolivian authorities, upon realizing that Ostreicher's company was operating on his land, arrested the businessman on June 3, 2011. Since then, 22 hearings have been scheduled for Ostreicher's case, but each has been postponed due to the successful maneuvering of Bolivian government prosecutors, including demanding the recusal of judges. Ostreicher is being held in the notoriously corrupt Palmasola prison, where he has been denied access to a doctor. He has been on a hunger strike since April 13.
Smith lambasted the State Department, which declined to testify at the hearing, for failing to effectively take up Ostreicher's case.
"Although our own State Department officials are finally acknowledging that Mr. Ostreicher's due process rights are being violated, they continue to seem hesitant and uncertain about what action to take on his behalf," he said.
Former FBI special agent Steve Moore, who has also visited Ostreicher in prison, said in heated comments during the hearing that Smith's proposed legislation addresses a vast government blindspot.
"There are brave people in State, but there are cowards in State too," he said. "If Jacob Ostreicher dies in Palmasola prison, both the Bolivian government and the United States Department of State will have the same blood on their hands."
The State Department responded Wednesday that it continues to work hard on the issue, as U.S. officials have been in "frequent contact" with Bolivian officials to advocate for due process under Bolivian law.
"Mr. Ostreicher's guilt or innocence will be decided by the Bolivian judicial system," a State Department spokesman said.
"However, the Bolivian government should permit the judicial system to function properly and allow Mr. Ostreicher's motion be heard on its merits," spokesman Patrick Ventrell continued. "The Bolivian government's actions are deeply regrettable, and are resulting in unacceptable delays. We urge the Bolivian government to act swiftly to correct this situation by holding the bail hearing immediately and advancing the judicial process without delay."
Smith, on the other hand, says he is not convinced that Bolivian officials intend to take any action.
"While in Bolivia, I met with Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Juan Carlos Alurralde, Minister of Government Carlos Romero Bonifaz, and Minister of Justice Cecilia Ayllón Quinteros to advocate for Mr. Ostreicher's release," he said. "Each of them have made commitments with respect to this case but have not followed through."
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Yimmy Montano, one of Ostreicher's Bolivian attorneys, believes his client is "being used by Bolivia to get back at the U.S. after a Miami court last year sentenced Gen. Rene Sanabria, Bolivia's top-ranking antidrug official, to 14 years in jail for trying to smuggle cocaine into the U.S."
Jerjes Justiniano, Ostreicher's second attorney, says there is no logical reason for his client's treatment.
"I do not understand how an American citizen can be treated this way, having invested in Bolivia and given jobs to indigenous Bolivians, reaching higher salaries than the government itself pays to the police," Justiniano said at Wednesday's hearing. "This approach demonstrates a clear interference by the executive on the judiciary."
Ostreicher's wife had harsh words for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which she says told her that he husband's situation is a symptom of a larger problem.
"The U.S. Embassy reported that it is the opinion of the UNCHR office in Bolivia that Jacob is not being persecuted or targeted by the government, but rather he is yet another victim of a brutally slow, inefficient, underfunded, and corrupt judicial system," the wife, Miriam Ungar, told the audience at the hearing. "As our Bolivian attorney will attest, the totality of what Jacob has experienced is not common."
Bolivia has had tense relations with the United States under the administration of President Evo Morales. In 2008, Morales accused U.S. antidrug officials of interfering in Bolivian politics and expelled them from the country.
Several individuals connected to the Morales administration have been convicted for cooperating with cartels in Bolivian and U.S. courts, the Eurasia Review reported in July. Morales himself has headed Bolivia's coca growers union since 1996. He was reelected chairman in July.
Late Wednesday evening, the House and Senate both passed new legislation increasing sanctions on Iran, sending the bill to the president's desk for his signature.
The Senate passed the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act by unanimous consent and the House passed it 421-6. The bill closes several loopholes in the current sanctions regime and provides for additional penalties against entities that aid Iran's petroleum, petrochemical, insurance, shipping, and financial sectors. The bill is a compromise of House and Senate versions that was negotiated behind closed doors between Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
"With passage of this bill, we are taking another significant step to block the remaining avenues for the Iranians to fund their illicit behavior and evade sanctions," Johnson said in a statement. "The sanctions contained in this bill reach more deeply into Iran's energy sector than ever before, and build on the sweeping banking sanctions Congress enacted two years ago to reach to insurance, shipping, trade, finance and other sectors, targeting those who help to bolster Iranian government revenues which support their illicit nuclear activities."
In the Senate, nobody objected, not even Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who had several amendments he wanted to add to strengthen the legislation that the negotiators didn't choose to include in the final version of the legislation. But Kirk did promise to try again.
"I want to commend Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen for helping us negotiate a tough sanctions bill," Kirk said in a Tuesday statement. "A broad bipartisan coalition overcame objections from some in the administration to ratchet up energy and shipping sanctions to unprecedented levels, expand the Menendez-Kirk sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran, and increase penalties facing those who violate our sanctions. In the coming weeks, should the Iranian regime continue to defy the U.N. Security Council and refuse to halt its uranium enrichment activities, we will build a new bipartisan coalition to impose farther-reaching sanctions."
In the House, Reps. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) spoke out against the bill, arguing that it would subject the Iranian people to suffering and increase the likelihood of armed confrontation with Iran.
"It is so similar to what we went through in the early part of this last decade when we were beating the war drums to go to war against Iraq. And it was all a facade. There was no danger from Iraq. So this is what we are doing, beating the war drums once again," Paul said.
House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) defended the bill, saying, "This is not the next step to war. This is the alternative to war. Iran having a nuclear weapon is unacceptable for many, many reasons."
The bill was heavily supported by the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, which issued a statement praising the passage of the bill and calling on the president to sign it.
"Each passing day affords the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism the ability to advance its illicit nuclear program. America must lead the effort to exert the maximum economic pressure to get Iran to change course," the statement said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to Senegal, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa through August 10. Wednesday, the Secretary met with Senegal President Macky Sall in Dakar. She is accompanied by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Assistnat Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, and Counselor and Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills.
Republican nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney supports directly arming the Syrian rebels, but his surrogate and possible running mate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), says not so fast.
Rubio, a rising star on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, could add some foreign-policy chops to a ticket that is constantly being accused of being light on experience and competence in that department.
But on the major international issue of the day -- Syria -- Rubio and Romney just don't see eye to eye, because Rubio doesn't think it's a good idea to give the Syrian rebels U.S. weapons.
"The most important thing we can do in the short term is help them help themselves become a more effective fighting force and a more accountable one. And I think once that happens [arming the rebels]would be an option," Rubio said in a short Tuesday interview with The Cable.
"Where we could be most helpful to them is that we could be providing them with logistical support, medical support, and humanitarian support, which will allow them to become more cohesive in their fighting capabilities," Rubio said.
As it happens, that's the current policy of the Obama administration, although the administration has also decided to look the other way while Gulf nations send arms to the Syrian rebels, and some reports say that the CIA is even helping to vet rebel groups that might be recipients of those weapons.
Rubio even echoed administration's chief concern about the risks of sending U.S. weapons to the internal Syrian opposition, namely that there's no telling where the weapons might go and who might get their hands on them.
"Once they become more responsible and establish a chain of command so that the weapons aren't going to be used for ill-intended purposes and we know they have control over the supply chain, then I think we can explore arming the rebels," Rubio said.
In contrast, the Romney campaign has been clear that Romney supports the U.S. immediately and directly arming the Syrian rebels with U.S. weapons.
"[Romney has] said we should be willing to arm the moderate opposition. He's said repeatedly he'd be willing and support arming the moderate factions within the opposition," Romney campaign senior advisor for defense and foreign policy Rich Williamson said at the Brookings Institution last week.
Neither Romney nor Rubio supports the idea of U.S. established safe zones inside Syria to protect civilians there, as Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) advocate.
The Cable reported last week that most senators can't explain Romney's Syria policy because they are not familiar with it, and views among GOP caucus members are all over the map.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told The Cable that he supports safe zones but not arming the rebels, and that he just doesn't know how that jives with Romney's views. When asked about Romney's Syria policy, Cornyn said, "I don't know what it is."
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Mitt Romney's foreign trip showed that he can't handle sensitive diplomatic situations, can't even handle relationships with friendly countries, and therefore is failing the commander-in-chief test, according to Obama campaign representatives Robert Gibbs and Colin Kahl.
"He offended our closest ally and triggered a troubling reaction in the most sensitive region in the world. He certainly didn't prove to anyone that he passed the commander in chief test," said Gibbs, the former White House press secretary, on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
Gibbs said the Romney campaign set extremely low expectations for the trip -- and then didn't even meet those expectations. The former Massachusetts governor did not visit any warzones or meet with any U.S. troops, Gibbs observed, as then Senator Barack Obama did when campaigning in 2008.
"Many were surprised that Mitt Romney did not take the opportunity to meet with any members of our armed forces on this trip," said Gibbs.
Gibbs also noted that Romney only took three questions from the reporters traveling with him, sparking frustration between the Romney campaign and the press corps that boiled over with profane comments from one of Romney's aides to reporters in Poland. Obama took 25 questions on his campaign trip abroad, Gibbs said.
"He repeatedly took a pass on explaining his views on foreign policy to the American people," Gibbs said. "Romney's auditioning to be the leader of the free world and it's clear he is unable to represent America on the world stage."
Kahl, who served in the Obama administration for three years as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said that Romney's suggestion that London was not ready to host the Olympics was an unforced error.
"The trip was supposed to be an easy one for Governor Romney, but he couldn't even handle the low bar that his campaign set for him," said Kahl. "If Romney can't handle the special relationship with Great Britain on the eve of the Olympic Games, how can he handle our enemies?"
Kahl said that Romney's trip was devoid of specific policy proposals and that Romney has repeatedly criticized Obama's foreign policy without spelling out exactly what he would do differently.
"The world got to see what it would be like if Mitt Romney was in charge of American foreign policy and it's not a sight they will forget any time soon," said Kahl. "This trip casts serious doubt as to whether Governor Romney has the ability to handle the job."
Gibbs and Kahl also criticized Romney for intimating that culture had something to do with the disparity of wealth between in Israel and the Palestinian territories, comments described as racist by several Palestinian leaders.
"You have to choose your words very, very carefully and Governor Romney just didn't do that," said Kahl. "
"It's up to Governor Romney to explain why those comments would be helpful to resolving the conflict in the Middle East."
Kahl also defended the Obama administration's reluctance to recognize Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there, as Romney promised to do when he was in the Jewish state.
Kahl said that the current policy that the status of Jerusalem is an issue to be negotiated between the two parties represents bipartisan consensus going back decades.
"[Romney] disagreed with past democratic administrations like Bill Clinton's and past Republican administrations like Ronald Reagan's," Kahl said.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a Romney surrogate and rumored candidate to be Romney's running mate, defended the former governor's comments on culture and wealth in a brief interview Tuesday with The Cable.
"I think that certainly you look at the success of some countries and you wonder why are some nations that are right next door to other nations and more successful. I think America has benefited from being a melting pot of cultures," Rubio said. "There's no way you look at Israel and not marvel at what they have accomplished -- their commitment to democracy, their commitment to free enterprise, their commitment to upward mobility -- and I think you find a lot of that in their culture, absolutely."
The Romney campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta promised increased security cooperation with Tunisia during a visit to the North African country Monday, while lawmakers in Washington pressed the administration to do more to build up the U.S.-Tunisia security relationship.
"The U.S. Department of Defense stands ready to help Tunisia to ensuring regional stability, to strengthen the capabilities of its defense institutions," Panetta said after meeting President Moncef Marzouki today in Tunis. "I was pleased to begin a dialogue about how we can deepen that cooperation in the range of common concerns, counter violent extremism and terrorism... There are a number of efforts that we can assist them with to develop the kind of operations, the kind of intelligence that will help effectively deal with that threat."
Last week, a group of bipartisan senators wrote to President Barack Obama to urge him to expand military cooperation and assistance to the new Tunisian government and broaden the economic and strategic relationship as well, in a previously unreported letter obtained by The Cable. They wrote that Tunisia represents a hopeful model for the Arab Spring but that the country's path to democratic prosperity is fragile and needs support.
"We applaud the actions taken by your Administration to aid Tunisia during its transition, including the recent reprogramming of $100 million in direct budget support, the establishment of a Millennium Challenge Corporation threshold compact, the creation of a U.S.-Tunisia Enterprise Fund, loan guarantees, and intensive diplomacy by Secretary of State Clinton to persuade other countries around the world to provide help to Tunis. However, we believe that much more can and must be done," wrote Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Chris Coons (D-DE), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and John Hoeven (R-ND).
In addition to counterterrorism assistance, Tunisia needs help securing its borders and training its police force, the senators wrote. They also urged Obama to begin negotiations immediately with Tunisia on a free trade agreement, an idea floated recently by House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-CA). The senators also want Obama to start a strategic dialogue with Tunisia, to give the relationship more long-term consistency.
"We are concerned that, despite increased U.S. engagement with Tunisia since the revolution last year, much of our interaction with our partners in Tunisia remains unstructured and episodic," they wrote. "As senior officials in your Administration have repeatedly said, the Arab Spring is a historic opportunity to help a critical part of the world move towards greater freedom, stability, and prosperity. When historians look back decades from now, they will judge whether the U.S. government seized or squandered this moment."
Lieberman went to Tunisia most recently in December 2011. McCain and Hoeven went there in February 2012. Lieberman and McCain were also the first senators to visit Tunisia after the "jasmine revolution," traveling there in February 2011.
According to the Congressional Research Service, Tunisia is set to receive $29.5 million in foreign military financing in fiscal 2012 and $1.9 million in military education under the IMET programs, which bring foreign military leaders to the U.S. for short periods of time. The administration has requested $15 million and $2.3 million, respectively, for fiscal year 2013. The administration allocated $13 million in Defense Department-administered funding for a maritime and border security package in fiscal 2011.
By comparison, Egypt receives approximately 50 times more money than Tunisia in security assistance.
House and Senate negotiators have reached a compromise on a new set of Iran sanctions to be brought to the floor of both chambers this week, but some conservative critics say the compromise isn't strong enough to convince the Iranians to change their nuclear calculations.
The Cable has obtained the latest version of the bill, which has not yet been introduced in the House. The bill could be introduced as early as tonight and could come to the House floor as early as Wednesday.
The Senate could take it up and try to pass it Thursday or Friday, before senators leave town for August recess. This version was negotiated behind closed doors between the staffs of Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
The bill would sanction anyone who provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot-control equipment -- as well as jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed related assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation would also formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.
The bill does not contain proposed language offered by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) in the Senate and Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Robert Dold (R-FL) in the House that would expand energy-sector sanctions on Iran by declaring the country a "zone of proliferation concern," thus barring any businesses or service providers from dealing with the Iranian petroleum sector in any way. Instead the bill includes a non-binding "sense of Congress" that Iran is a zone of proliferation concern.
The bill also does not provide for penalties on the board of directors of the international financial transaction clearinghouse SWIFT, penalties that would have punished those directors if SWIFT allowed any banks from any countries to aid Iran in evading international sanctions, as the Wall Street Journal editorial board advocated for today.
"We hear the administration opposes this move for fear that it might prompt such banks to create their own versions of Swift. Yet there aren't many banks that would want to be cut off from the international financial system, much less place themselves in a basket of outlaw or shady banks," the Journal editorial said.
The legislation also does not expand existing sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to apply to all Iranian financial institutions and entities that do business with them, like exchange houses and gold suppliers. Kirk and some House members had been advocating for those provisions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has been saying that he wants to get the bill passed this month and there's little chance the legislation could be opened up again for changes. The last time Reid brought the bill to the floor, he refused to allow amendments or floor debate and he is expected to try to go for a unanimous consent vote this time as well. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, also has been lobbying in support of the new version to various Hill offices.
For experts that follow Iran sanctions, the bill is a good step toward tightening the noose on Iran's economy but not enough to bring the Iranian economy to its knees in a way that would compel Iran's leaders to abandon their nuclear ambitions.
"This bill is a major step towards economic warfare against the Iranian regime. It closes significant loopholes and tightens U.S. sanctions in key areas including shipping. But Iranian nuclear physics is beating Western economic pressure," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "We need to skip intermediate steps and go to comprehensive economic warfare. Everything must be prohibited unless permitted, and the only transactions that should be permitted are small purchases of Iranian oil and the sale of humanitarian goods. Destroying the regime's energy wealth is the best way to avoid a military confrontation."
"What exactly is this going to do to get the Iranians to the table? This is the time for the mallet, not fine-needle surgery," said Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. "We see this as a do-or-die moment. Our purpose is not to have effective sanctions; our purpose is to bring them to the table to give up their nuclear ambitions."
The House Republican leadership has signed on to the compromise, although the question remains whether all of the Senate GOP caucus will go along. One congressional aide knowledgeable about Iran sanctions defended the compromise.
"We'll inevitably hear voices this week who say this could have gone further on x, y, or z. But it's important not to make the perfect into the enemy of the good, and this sanctions bill is good -- very good, in fact -- and by passing it, Congress can make a real difference," the aide said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the administration's action on Iran sanctions today during a stop in Tunisia. "I think what we all need to do is to continue the pressure on Iran economically and diplomatically, to take the right steps here to negotiate," he said.
UPDATE: Late Monday evening, Johnson and Ros-Lehtinen each issued statements announcing the compromise. Johnson said he will work to ensure the senate passes the legislation this week.
"I am pleased we could come together and find agreement on this bipartisan and bicameral bill," Johnson said in his statement. "These new sanctions will send a clear signal to Iran's military and political leaders, that unless they come clean on their nuclear program, end the suppression of their people, and stop supporting terrorist activities, they will face deepening international isolation and even greater economic and diplomatic pressure."
Ros-Lehtinen also presented the compromise as bipartisan and bicameral and emphasized that many members of both chambers had input into the process. She also defended the strength and impact of the law's provisions.
"If properly implemented, this bill will impose crippling economic pressure on the Iranian regime in order to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and other dangerous policies," she said in her statement. "The House and Senate will be taking up the bill this week, and I urge President Obama to quickly sign it and vigorously enforce its provisions."
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Deputy Secretary Bill Burns discussed the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship and opportunities for international cooperation with Mexican government officials Sunday in Mexico City. Today Burns is in Bogota, Colombia, to lead the U.S. delegation in the third round of the U.S.-Colombia High-Level Partnership Dialogue, where he will be joined by Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Affairs Carlos Pascual, and Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez. Discussions will cover democracy, human rights, energy, economic opportunities, climate change, culture and education, and science and technology.
The Mitt Romney campaign is about to open up a new front against President Barack Obama on foreign policy; he will ramp up his criticism of the administration's record on democracy promotion and human rights, and begin talking about the "freedom agenda."
The Romney campaign's foreign policy platform, which is often criticized for being light on specifics and concrete policies, has always been centered around the argument that Romney believes in American exceptionalism in a way that Obama doesn't. In his speech this week at the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference, Romney said, "I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known, and that our influence is needed as much now as ever. And I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century."
When Romney arrives in Poland on Monday -- the third stop of his international trip -- he will expand upon that theme to make the argument that America must lead the global march of freedom and democracy, as the United States has done throughout its history, and in particular during the Cold War, when Poland struggled for freedom and independence from the Soviet Union.
"Barack Obama has broken with a tradition that goes back to Woodrow Wilson about human rights and values animating our foreign policy. This administration has not been an effective voice for human rights," said Romney campaign senior advisor for foreign policy and defense Rich Williamson, who also served as George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan, in an exclusive interview on Friday with The Cable.
"Mitt Romney believes in the march of freedom. Like Ronald Reagan, Romney thinks we can't control the pace of freedom, but there should be no doubt where our ultimate goal is and that is for all people to be free," said Williamson. "Barack Obama doesn't get it. He hasn't kept faith with those people who seek freedom for themselves and their children and that has been a disappointment to our heritage, to who were are, and to those brave people who are struggling for freedom and human rights in their countries. He doesn't get that's a responsibility of the leader of the free world."
Williamson said Romney's vision on democracy, human rights, and the freedom agenda is rooted in Ronald Reagan's June 1982 speech at Westminster, when Reagan said, "Democracy is not a fragile flower. Still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy."
"When it comes to human rights and values, Obama has a different vision of where America comes from, what has made us great, and what our obligation and responsibility is to the world," Williamson said.
Williamson pointed out that Obama didn't mention the word "democracy" even once in his inaugural address, a stark contrast from Bush's second inaugural address, which stated, "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
More broadly, the Romney campaign is expanding its messaging to highlight what they perceive to be the Obama administration's de-prioritization of human rights as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy and its perceived neglect of struggling democratic and freedom movements around the world, including in places like Iran, Russia, China, and many more.
Even in its first few months, says Williamson, Obama administration officials made several moves that revealed their strategy of deprioritizing human rights, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's downplaying of human rights on her first visit to China in Feb. 2009, and Obama's decision not to speak out vocally in favor of the Green Revolution in Iran that summer.
The Romney campaign also sees the Obama administration as being inconsistent on human rights in its dealings with the Arab Spring, Williamson said. First, Clinton and others made statements defending Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Later, the administration made the case for humanitarian intervention when deciding to attack Libya. Now, the administration is ignoring the plight of Syrians being slaughtered by the government of Bashar al-Assad, he argued.
"Either Obama doesn't understand who were are as a people, or he finds those values to be just ideas that are convenient, clothes that are to be worn when it's fashionable. The fact is those values are there every day and you have to have fidelity to it," Williamson said.
Williamson pointed to the administration's "reset" policy to Russia amid a government crackdown on free speech and democracy; Obama's friendship with Turkey as the government harasses and jails journalists at an alarming rate; and the administration's quick loosening of sanctions in Burma -- all examples of the Obama's focus on reaching out to governments while neglecting the aspirations of suffering peoples.
"Putin's election was determined not to be free and fair and what does Obama do? He calls Putin to congratulate him," he said. "The authoritarian drift of Russia at home does not seem to be an issue for this administration."
Williamson said the administration has also been too conciliatory to the regime of indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, downplayed the genocide in Darfur, and ignored the plight of Tibetans, Uighurs, members of the Falun Gong sect, and other oppressed minorities in China.
The Obama administration often says that it tries hard to balance American interests and values and that it includes human rights in its dealings with all governments, especially those with poor records on treatment of their own citizens. Williamson said Romney agrees that it's a false choice to say American can't be strong on human rights while defending its interests, but Romney thinks Obama is not striking that balance correctly.
"The goal of our foreign policy is first and foremost our national defense and then economic interests. But it should be animated by our values, and every president grapples with that balance." he said. "But President Obama has gone to an extreme of discounting human rights that hasn't been seen during the tenures of Republican or Democratic presidents."
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Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has no national security or foreign-policy experience and also has avoided giving details on how he would handle important foreign- policy issues, according to Gen. Wesley Clark, retired four-star general and former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
"[Romney] doesn't bring any real national security experience to the issues at hand. He doesn't have any foreign-policy experience. He has less foreign policy experience than Senator Obama had when he ran," said Clark, who launched his own unsuccessful run for president in 2004.
"Mr. Romney hasn't delivered answers to the critical questions, such as what we he actually do beyond the current actions to isolate and pressure Iran?" said Clark, who accused Romney of "throwing out a bunch of generalized charges and Cold War bromides that actually have no basis in reality."
The 2008 campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for president also focused on Romney's lack of overseas experience during its primary fight with Romney. The McCain campaign prepared an extensive opposition research file that spelled out several of Romney's position shifts on foreign policy and painted him as naïve and inexperienced.
"Romney has no foreign-policy experience," reads the first bullet point in the foreign-policy section of the 200-page McCain opposition research file, posted in January by Buzzfeed.
Clark was speaking Thursday on a conference call organized by the left-leaning Truman National Security Project, along with former congressman and Iraq veteran Patrick Murphy and Mark Jacobson, former deputy NATO civilian representative on Afghanistan.
The trio discussed Romney's trip to Europe this week, which has been marked by a controversy over Romney's comments that London might not be ready for the Olympics and by comments by an unnamed advisor saying that the Obama administration didn't fully appreciate the "Anglo-Saxon" relationship between Britain and the United States. (The Romney camp has disavowed those comments.)
"He's simply not ready for the diplomatic dance necessary when handling our nations' relationships abroad, much less handling sensitive national security issues," said Jacobson. "If he can't handle the Olympics, how can he handle being commander in chief?"
Murphy, the first Iraq veteran to serve in Congress, noted that Romney had not discussed veterans' issues in his Tuesday speech to the Veterans of Foreign War conference. He also pointed out that Romney suggested a private sector voucher system for veterans' healthcare in a speech last November,
"He didn't say anything about what he would do for our veterans. That was odd at best, insulting at worst. Vets are not props," said Murphy. "Mitt Romney had an awful record on vets issue when governor, so it's not surprising he avoided the topic."
The Romney campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon is traveling to Greece and Turkey until July 31. In Athens, he will discuss economic reforms and foreign policy issues with senior government officials, political party leaders, and members of the business and think tank communities. On July 29, he will arrive in Istanbul, where he will meet with senior Turkish government officials to discuss various bilateral and global issues.
A top advisor to Mitt Romney's campaign on Wednesday accused U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon of leaking classified intelligence information to New York Times reporter David Sanger.
The advisor, former George W. Bush envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson, was speaking during a debate at Washington's Brookings Institution with former senior Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy, who has emerged as one of President Barack Obama's top foreign-policy surrogates on the campaign trail.
Williamson was hammering the Obama administration for leaking national security secrets for political gain, a theme of Romney's speech Tuesday before the Veteran of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nevada.
"I believe every reporter in this town knows that at least one of the sources is in the White House," Williamson said. "I think the Obama administration has figured out how to do [intelligence sharing]: Have the national security advisor talk to David Sanger and then all intelligence is shared."
"No one is immune. Nothing is off the table," Flournoy responded. "[Obama] has also said he will pursue the investigations to their logical conclusions and he will prosecute anyone who is found to have leaked."
"There's been no administration that has been more aggressive in pursuing leaks than this one," she added, pointing out that the administration has appointed two U.S. attorneys to investigate the leaks.
That apparently is not enough to satisfy Romney, who on Tuesday called for "a full and prompt investigation by a special counsel" into what he called "a national security crisis."
"Whoever provided classified
information to the media, seeking political advantage for the administration,
must be exposed, dismissed, and punished," he said.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said Monday that the White House should understand the leaks were coming from within its own ranks, but she retracted that comment Tuesday and said she did not know who the leakers were.
Arming the Syrian rebels
Williamson also said Wednesday that Romney firmly supports direct U.S. aid to the Syrian rebels.
"[Romney has] said we should be willing to arm the moderate opposition," Williamson said. "He's said repeatedly he'd be willing and support arming the moderate factions within the opposition."
In fact, Romney has often said that he supports "working with partners" to arm the Syrian opposition, but Williamson was clear that Romney supports the U.S. government directly providing American weapons to Syrian rebels fighting against the Assad regime.
Williamson ripped the Obama administration for being slow to work with the Syrian opposition, leaving the United States largely in the dark and impinging on the U.S. ability to work with rebel leaders now.
Romney does not support the idea of "safe zones" to protect Syrian civilians and rebel fighters, however, and idea championed by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as well as several of the former Massachusetts governor's own foreign-policy advisors.
"He's said that's not his position, but he feels we should be arming the opposition, but more importantly we shouldn't be leading from behind," Williamson said.
Flournoy countered that the administration has been working with the Syrian opposition for many months, even if it wasn't in the news. But she said that the administration's emphasis has been on diplomacy and sanctions, not adding fuel to what many are now describing as an incipient civil war.
"The way change will ultimately happen in Syria is if you can get parts of the inner circle around Assad to defect, and they're beginning to do that," she said. "Working the political dimensions of this are the most important piece and that's what the administration has been focused on from the get-go."
The debate touched on a range of other international issues, and moderator Marvin Kalb tried to tease out the differences between Romney and Obama on each.
On Iran, Williamson said that Romney does not support any deal that would allow Iran to enrich uranium at even low levels, while administration officials have said Iran has the right to limited uranium enrichment for civilian purposes.
"That would be unacceptable to Romney," Williamson said. He also said Romney would create a "credible threat" of military action against Iran that Obama has not.
"There is no credible threat of force. No one in Tehran or in the region feels that the Obama administration will use force," Williamson said.
Flournoy replied that Obama is serious when he says Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear, but that there is a year or more at least before Iran could reach the nuclear threshold that would trigger any military action.
"He doesn't bluff. That is the policy," she said. "Pentagon planning for this is very robust ... the military option is real. The president's judgment is now is not the time."
On Israel, Flournoy tried to counter Romney's critique that Obama has not visited Israel in his first term. Romney will visit Israel this week as part of his three-nation foreign trip that also includes stops in the United Kingdom and Poland.
"When you judge a president's commitment to Israel, you have to look beyond the itinerary," she said. "Does anybody question Ronald Reagan's commitment to Israel? He never went to Israel."
Williamson responded that Obama's treatment of Israeli leaders has been insulting and he referenced the March 2010 incident when Vice President Joe Biden delayed his arrival at a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protest the announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem on the day of Biden's arrival.
"The vice president of the United States kept the Israeli head of state waiting 90 minutes for dinner because he was having a temper tantrum. You don't treat any head of state that way, let alone your friend," Williamson said.
The two advisors also clashed over the merits of Obama's "reset" policy with Russia and whether China is being held to account for manipulating its currency.
But Williamson praised Obama's handling of the relationship with India and said, "The president has made good progress [on Chinese human rights] in the governor's opinion."
The Cable asked Williamson to respond to Republican complaints that the Romney campaign has been light on details about its foreign policy and has even downplayed the importance of national security during the campaign. The Weekly Standard's William Kristol wrote Wednesday that the Romney campaign should stop talking about national security as if it's a low priority for a candidate and a president.
"There's an understandable desire to have more and more details," Williamson said. "But in the end what he needs to do is try to present a world vision that is dramatically different from President Obama's, and a thrust of how he would approach it ... and he's done that."
"Bill Kristol will never be satisfied that there are enough details and he's paid to be provocative, but we feel we are laying out a vision for where America should go."
Now that China has announced it intends to build a military garrison on disputed islands in the South China Sea, raising fears about the outbreak of conflict in the contested maritime region, several top U.S. senators are urging China and Southeast Asian countries to return to the negotiating table and solve their disputes peacefully.
Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Richard Lugar (R-IN), John McCain (R-AZ), Jim Webb (D-VA), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), introduced a resolution this week to urge China and ASEAN to complete work on a code of conduct for settling disputes in the South China Sea and other maritime domains before tensions rise any further.
The resolution "strongly urges that, pending adoption of a code of conduct, all parties, consistent with commitments under the declaration of conduct, ‘exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and stability, including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.'"
The Obama administration has been working quietly but in a determined fashion to press Southeast Asian countries to settle their internal disputes and come up with a unified negotiating position for how to complete a code of conduct for settling maritime disputes, as all of the countries of the region agreed to do in 2002.
"We have seen worrisome instances of economic coercion and the problematic use of military and government vessels in connection with disputes among fisherman. So we look to ASEAN and China to make meaningful progress toward finalizing a code of conduct for the South China Sea that is based on international law and agreements," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said July 12 in Cambodia when attending the ASEAN Regional Forum. "As I told my colleagues, this will take leadership, and ASEAN is at its best when it meets its own goals and standards and is able to speak with one voice on issues facing the region."
The senators' resolution supports that process but also reaffirms the U.S. commitment to assist ASEAN countries in remaining strong and independent and pledges to deepen the U.S. partnership with ASEAN nations. The resolution also "supports enhanced operations by the United States armed forces in the Western Pacific, including in the South China Sea, including in partnership with the armed forces of others countries in the region, in support of freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, including the peaceful resolution of issues of sovereignty, and unimpeded lawful commerce."
In a statement given to The Cable, Kerry said that ASEAN's failure to agree on a joint statement regarding the code of conduct at the Cambodia summit added to the rising tensions between China and its neighbors over the issues and convinced senators it was time to weigh in.
"These disputes are real and they're getting more serious. I'd think the least the Senate can do is to go on the record clearly and unequivocally in favor of ASEAN efforts to develop a code of conduct in the South China Sea," Kerry said.
"There should be no doubt that the United States is committed to an enduring presence and deepening partnerships in the region. We have a clear interest in safe and lawful behavior by everyone operating in Asia's maritime commons. We have a huge interest also in the peaceful resolution of all the issues in the South China Sea, consistent with international law and through a multilateral diplomatic process," Kerry continued. "We've got big worries about freedom of navigation and free commerce. Those are principles all states in the region should be able to support, and this resolution makes clear that the Senate's watching and we're focused appropriately."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will speak at the second annual Global Diaspora Forum in Washington, which will focus on how the U.S. government and diaspora communities are partnering to further investment and trade, philanthropy, volunteerism, and social innovation around the world. She will also meet with World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Luxembourg Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean Asselborn, and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Slovak Republic Miroslav Lajcak.
The State Department said Tuesday that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a U.N. agency, didn't violate sanctions by giving U.S. technology to Iran and North Korea, rebutting a charge by top lawmakers in both parties that the agency is stifling congressional attempts to investigate the matter.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and her Democratic counterpart Howard Berman (D-CA) cancelled a scheduled committee briefing today on the matter and accused WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry of refusing to allow to senior WIPO staffers to testify.
"Director-General Gurry is obstructing this Committee's investigation of WIPO's transfer of U.S.-origin technology to rogue regimes under international sanctions-a transfer that occurred on his watch," both lawmakers said in a joint statement. "By refusing to commission an independent investigation and by obstructing an investigation by the Congress of the United States, whose citizens provide so much of the funds that keep WIPO operating, Director-General Gurry sends the message that he is not committed to transparency, accountability, and reform."
Questioned about the situation at today's State Department press briefing, Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the Obama administration shares congressional concerns about the alleged transfer of U.S. technology to Iran and North Korea. But she also said that the administration doesn't think WIPO broke U.N. rules.
"Our own preliminary assessment -- but we are still seeking more information from WIPO -- is that there doesn't appear to have been a violation of U.N. sanctions," she said. "However, this has now been referred to the sanctions committee for them to make their own determination."
WIPO shipped 20 Hewlett-Packard Compaq desktop computers to Iran in either late 2011 or early 2012 and gave North Korea more advanced computers and data storage devices. The transfers were financed through the Beijing office of the U.N. Development Program.
Nuland said the administration couldn't determine whether the WIPO transfers had violated U.S. law until WIPO comes back to the administration with more information. She also said the administration does not agree with Ros-Lehtinen that WIPO is stonewalling on the issue.
"We have seen a number of positive steps from WIPO with regard to their procedures going forward that are important. For example, they have agreed to a commission that will have an external and independent auditing ability with regard to their projects to try to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future," Nuland said.
Last week, Ros-Lehtinen and Berman wrote to the administration to say that WIPO's own internal investigations would not be enough to satisfy congressional concern over the technology transfers.
"We will accept nothing less than an independent investigation, full cooperation, and complete accountability," Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Berman wrote in the July 20 letter.
"We have written to WIPO demanding an independent, external investigation of how WIPO could have provided sophisticated U.S.-origin technology to rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran. Instead, the WIPO leadership has announced that it will institute a mere 'review,' which falls far short. What's needed is an immediate and credible investigation," they wrote.
In a July 19 statement, WIPO's Gurry reiterated that the transfers were being referred to the U.N. sanctions committee for guidance and that new measures would be put in place to examine future transfers before they take place.
"While the legal advice received with respect to the technical assistance provided to DPRK [North Korea] and Iran was that the technical assistance was not in breach of U.N.sanctions, it is hoped that the measures outlined above will provide assurance that the organization is treating this matter with the seriousness that it warrants," he said.
As the crisis in Syria deepens, top senators in both parties are unable to explain presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney's policy on dealing with the country's deepening civil war.
Romney, who leaves Tuesday evening on a three-nation foreign trip, barely mentioned Syria in his foreign-policy speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Reno, and then only as a criticism of President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Russia.
"I don't know what it is," said Senate Armed Services Committee member John Cornyn (R-TX) when asked to comment on Romney's Syria policy. After The Cable explained it to him, Cornyn said he needed more time to study the issue. Other top senators were similarly befuddled.
On his campaign website, Romney criticizes Obama for reaching out to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the past but stops short of calling for any direct action to force Assad from power such as directly arming the opposition, as his surrogates like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) are demanding, or establishing "safe zones" for the Syrian opposition, as many of his campaign's foreign policy advisors are calling for.
"Mitt Romney believes the United States should pursue a strategy of isolating and pressuring the Assad regime to increase the likelihood of a peaceful transition to a legitimate government. We should redouble our push for the U.N. Security Council to live up to its responsibilities and impose sanctions that cut off funding sources that serve to maintain the regime's grip on power," the campaign website reads.
But the Obama administration is already pursuing a more aggressive strategy than that, announcing this week that it is abandoning the diplomacy track at the U.N. and ramping up various levels of support to the Syrian opposition. CIA teams are also reportedly vetting rebels fighters and aiding in their efforts to get weapons from countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Administration officials say that increased communications and intelligence assistance is also on the way.
Romney has said repeatedly that the United States should "work with partners" to arm the Syrian opposition but has stopped short of calling for Washington to give the rebels direct, lethal aid. On July 19, after the U.N. Security Council again failed to impose punitive measures on the Assad regime following Russian and Chinese vetoes, Romney again criticized the administration's policy without saying what he would do differently.
"Russia's veto again shows the hollowness of President Obama's failed ‘reset' policy with Russia and his lack of leadership on Syria," Romney said. "While Russia and Iran have rushed to support Bashar al-Assad and thousands have been slaughtered, President Obama has abdicated leadership and subcontracted U.S. policy to Kofi Annan and the United Nations. Under this President, American influence and respect for our position around the world is at a low ebb."
On Monday, Romney told CNBC, "I think from the very beginning we misread the setting in Syria... America should've come out very aggressively from the very beginning and said Assad must go. ... The world looks for American leadership and American strength."
On Capitol Hill, senior Republicans and Democrats alike were at pains to describe Romney's policy on Syria, much less say whether they supported it or not.
"I think we need to have a robust discussion about that," Cornyn said. "There's also the concern that Syria is much more difficult than Libya was, for example. So I think the discussions need to continue about what the appropriate response is. I'm interested in learning from others what their response is."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who admitted last week that he didn't know what Romney's Afghanistan policy was, couldn't name any specifics of Romney's Syria policy Tuesday and instead launched into a monologue about America's role in the world.
"Syria is a really complicated problem in a really complicated part of the world and anybody who says you can have a Syria policy separate and apart from the rest of your foreign policy doesn't know what foreign policy is made of," Kyl told The Cable. "I know that Governor Romney sees the complexities of the world and appreciates the need to have a strong America that has the flexibility to act in complicated and difficult and very troublesome situations like Syria."
Kyl declined to say whether he supported arming the Syrian opposition or establishing safe zones inside Syria, or whether he believed that Romney was supporting either option.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said he supported the administration's efforts to facilitate the movement of arms to the Syrian opposition and he believes the United States should work with Turkey and NATO to establish safe zones for Syrian civilians.
But Levin could not say what Romney's Syria policy was or whether it was substantively different from what the administration is doing now.
"I don't know what his position is and his positions change so frequently, it's hard to keep track," Levin said. "That doesn't mean that he doesn't have one, or that he doesn't have two or three for that matter."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable he has very specific criticisms of the Obama administration's Syria policy and very specific requests, namely that the administration use American military power to protect Syrian civilians and directly arm the opposition to help topple Assad.
"I'm pained every day that goes by and more and more Syrians get killed. We may be doing something through the CIA, but not a lot. Now the Syrians are using fighter plans and threatening to use gas," said Lieberman. "What I'd like to see is the Obama administration lead the coalition of the willing to go after the Assad regime directly, and I think that would end this pretty quickly."
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Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman is in New York for the final week of the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty Conference, which ends Friday. Conventional arms trading is estimated to be worth more than $70 billion a year, and the conference is still behind schedule. According to AFP, discussions are still hindered by disagreements between the main powers and a "small but determined minority of states who oppose the treaty."
China's oppression of Tibetans and their culture is preventing China from becoming a modern, pluralistic, free, and democratic nation, according to Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of Tibet's government in exile, who added that the current Chinese system and policy in Tibet is destined to fail.
"If Tibet is granted autonomy, that could be a catalyst for moderation of China because if the Chinese government grants autonomy to Tibetans, for the first time they are accepting diversity within and accepting a distinct if not different people," Sangay, who is also known as the Kalon Tripa, told The Cable in an exclusive interview during his visit to Washington last week.
"I think no system which is authoritarian, or one-party rule, can last long. Ultimately, other people have to be taken into consideration, have to be empowered and respected by the system, because universality of freedom is established now," he said. "In that sense I do believe the universality of freedom will prevail and justice will prevail in Tibet as well."
For now, Chinese repressive and violent treatment of Tibetans inside China is increasing and tensions between Tibetans and Han Chinese are reaching new and dangerous levels, Sangay said. The Tibetan people, dedicated to nonviolence, have resorted to self-immolations in record numbers this year to protest their treatment at the hands of the Chinese government, he said. Forty-four Tibetans have self-immolated over the last 18 months and 34 of those have died.
Meanwhile, Tibet has been closed off to foreign tourists, Tibetan visitors are being expelled from the Tibetan capital Lhasa, and thousands of Han Chinese are being brought into Tibet to artificially alter the demographic balance there.
"That means the Chinese government is really cutting off Tibet and Lhasa from the rest of the world," said Sangay, who came to Washington to meet with administration officials and lawmakers to rally support for the region's plight.
Unlike his first visit to Washington since becoming Tibet's first ever competitively elected prime minister last year, when no U.S. officials would meet with him, this year Sangay was able to meet with two top Obama administration officials. The White House confirmed that Sangay met with NSC Senior Director for Asia Daniel Russel and the State Department confirmed he met with Under Secretary of State Maria Otero.
Both meetings happened in non-U.S. government buildings, however, in a likely effort to stave off a diplomatic blast from Beijing. Sangay also met with several lawmakers, including Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
Sangay said there's no reason for U.S. officials to be wary of meeting Tibetans.
"Meeting Tibetans and receiving his Holiness the Dalai Lama is not zero-sum," he said. "Some have this mindset that if I meet a Tibetan I'll be in trouble with the Chinese government, but the Chinese will meet with you and do business with you because they get a good deal. Tomorrow if they get a better deal from some other country, they'll do that too."
"And at the larger level, if Tibetans are ignored, essentially what you're ignoring is nonviolence and democracy," he said. "So in that sense I think from a democratic point of view, from a nonviolent point of view, supporting Tibet is vital because we are trying to be and we have proven in the last five decades to be a torchbearer of nonviolence and democracy."
During his meetings with officials and lawmakers, Sangay updated them on what he sees as a ramping up of Chinese government persecution of Tibetans, which included the arrest and detention of thousands of Tibetans who traveled to India in January to hear a teaching from the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, and violence against Tibetans who protested in February during the Chinese New Year that resulted in at least 6 deaths.
"Unfortunately, instead of the Chinese government addressing the issues, they're resorting to the blame game and saying these protests are instigated from outside, that self-immolations are happening because of influence from the outside," he said. "But even the generation of Tibetans who grew up under the Chinese system who have not met outside Tibetans and the Dalai Lama are protesting against the Chinese government, which clearly indicates the failures of Chinese government policies."
Chinese repression of Tibetans is not just a human rights issue, he said. The Tibetan plateau houses 10 major rivers that provide water for over a third of the world's population and the Chinese government is damning those rivers in ways that are sure to alter the environment unpredictably. The Chinese government has built the second-largest mine in Asia in Tibet, he complained, destroying historical and also sacred mountains.
"Some experts say that wars were fought over land before, now wars are fought over energy and soon wars will be fought over water, and Tibet constitutes if not the largest than one of the largest sources of freshwater," Sangay said.
Sangay's message to U.S. officials and lawmakers was to ask for a fact-finding mission to be sent to Tibet to investigate the situation there.
He also repeated his call for limited Tibetan autonomy within the Chinese system, similar to how China treats Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to China in 1997 but still enjoys some control over its own affairs.
"We are asking for genuine autonomy within China, within the framework of the Chinese constitution. We are not challenging Chinese sovereignty or territorial integrity so we are willing to accept the One China concept," he said.
Chinese officials are in Washington Monday and Tuesday for the semi-regular U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue, a set of talks Washington insists are productive but that critics see as routine and light on deliverables. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly urged the Chinese government to reopen a dialogue with the Tibetan people last week during a meeting in Cambodia.
"The secretary's been forthright, the president has been forthright, that we have serious, ongoing concerns about a variety of human rights issues and rule-of-law issues in China, and we are always open and clear about those with Chinese officials," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at Monday's press briefing.
Sangay wrote in a July 13 Washington Post op-ed that such statements are welcome but not nearly enough to help the Tibetan people.
"The time has come for the world to shut out the noise of China's influence and to hear the Tibetan cries: that repression is unbearable and unacceptable," he wrote. "Because we know that the democracies of the world recognize basic human rights and freedoms to be universal values, we ask the international community to intervene before our situation deteriorates even further."
In his interview with The Cable, Sangay also noted the irony of the Chinese government's attempts to choose the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, even though the Chinese government denies the validity of organized religion.
"The communist party thinks of religion as poison, and his Holiness is called the Devil, so why are the Chinese so interested in the reincarnation of the Devil?" he said. "So we think they have no business in reincarnation because they don't believe in it to begin with, and even if they try to intervene, Tibetans will not believe it. It's like Fidel Castro saying I'll select the next Pope and Catholics should believe it. That's not going to happen, so the Chinese government might try, but it's bound to fail."
The top Kurdish representative in Washington on Friday pushed back against Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's attempt to encourage U.S. President Barack Obama to stop U.S. oil companies -- particularly ExxonMobil -- from investing in the Kurdish area of Iraq following Chevron's recent purchase of 80 percent of two blocks in the autonomous region.
The Kurdish representative, Qubad Talabani, the Kurdish Regional Government's representative in Washington and the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, was responding to Maliki's claim that Obama had sided with Baghdad in the escalating dispute in a recent letter.
"We would like to confirm that the letter was positive and convincing and stresses its respect for the constitution and Iraqi laws, in the same manner as the Iraqi government is seeking," read a statement from Maliki's office on Thursday.
On Friday, in a short interview with The Cable, Qubad Talabani shot back: "Every U.S. company that is working in Kurdistan today is working under the Iraqi constitution, so the notion that Obama has sent a letter to Maliki supporting his position on Exxon is misleading because the U.S. reaffirmed their support for the Iraqi constitution, and expressing their support is not contradictory to ExxonMobil working in Kurdistan."
But the dispute is not simply a legal matter. Baghdad is concerned that the KRG's cooperation with oil companies threatens its authority, since Article 112 of Iraq's constitution states that the management of the country's oil and gas fields and Iraq's energy policy are responsibilities of the federal government. "Firstly, the prime minister of Iraq should know that private U.S. companies ... don't act on the behalf of the U.S. government," Talabani said, "and they certainly don't take their orders from the U.S. government."
Baghdad banned ExxonMobil from bidding at a recent auction for exploration blocs after the company signed a 25-year exploration deal with the KRG last year. The KRG drew the ire of the Iraqi federal government earlier this month when it announced that it had exported some crude to Turkey, which gave the KRG refined product in return.
"This is an illegal and unconstitutional business that we will take the right decision against," a spokesman for Hussein al-Shahristani, Iraq's deputy prime minister for energy, said at the time. "The [Iraqi government's] oil ministry solely reserves the right to export crude oil, gas, or oil products to other countries."
American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Rubin told The Cable on Monday that KRG president Massoud Barzani had also raised the issue with President Obama, which The Cable was unable to confirm.
"It's my understanding that Barzani walked away with the perspective that Obama was favoring Maliki's claims over Barzani's, so it seems already that the U.S. is siding with the Iraqi central government on this issue at least," he said. "We can't pressure Iraqis because we have no leverage left."
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
In a rare moment amid a presidential campaign more often focused on bread-and-butter issues like jobs, economic growth, and deficit spending, the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney teams are ramping up their foreign-policy messaging this week as the former Massachusetts governor sets off for a major trip abroad.
In what has become a new ritual of American politics, both candidates will address the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Reno this week.
Ahead of Obama's Monday afternoon visit there, the president's campaign released a new video touting his administration's treatment of veterans and the president's moves to complete the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq last year.
Romney will speak to the conference on Tuesday before heading off on a three-nation foreign trip. On July 25, Obama surrogate and former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy will square off with Romney advisor Rich Williamson, George W. Bush's envoy to Sudan, in a debate at the Brookings Institution.
Earlier Monday, Flournoy and Colin Kahl, another former defense official, held a conference call with reporters, during which Kahl pledged that Obama would visit Israel in his second term if he is re-elected.
Kahl's pledge comes in response to the Romney camp's criticism that the president has been a fickle ally of Israel, a critique the GOP candidate is looking to exploit during his upcoming stop in Jerusalem.
After Romney speaks to the VFW Tuesday, he heads off that evening to London to attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and meet with British officials. Romney then goes on to Israel and Poland before returning to the United States.
On their own conference call with reporters, several Romney policy advisors emphasized that Romney will not be criticizing Obama's foreign policy on the trip.
"This trip is really an opportunity for the governor to learn and listen," said Lanhee Chen, the Romney campaign's policy director. "There are a number of challenges the world is facing today and this is an opportunity for him to visit three countries that each have a strong and important relationship with the U.S."
"So this trip demonstrates Governor Romney's belief in the worth and necessity of standing with our allies and locking arms with our allies," said Chen. "Each of these nations shares our love of liberty as well as our fortitude to defend it. They are each pillars of liberty and have fought through periods where liberty was under siege. This trip is an opportunity for us to demonstrate a clear and resolute stand with those nations that share our values."
The Obama campaign set his own marker for Romney's trip.
"He'll need to prove to the American people that he sees foreign-policy issues as worthy of substantive discussion rather than just generalities and sound bites in this campaign," said Obama senior advisor Robert Gibbs Monday. "This trip and this campaign begs several questions and I think Mitt Romney owes it to the American people to say where he stands on these important issues as he's trying out to be leader of the free world."
In London, Romney will meet with the leaders of the British government and opposition, including Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Foreign Minister William Hague, Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg, and former prime minister Tony Blair.
In Israel, Romney will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Perez, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Kadima Party Leader Shaul Mofaz, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
This will be Romney's forth trip to Israel. He made a family trip there in the late 1990s and then visited in January 2007 and gave a speech at the annual Herzliya conference. In January 2011, Romney visited Israel as part of a three-nation trip that also included stops in Afghanistan and Jordan.
Romney is visiting Poland at the invitation of former president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and he will also meet with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, and Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski. He will also visit Polish sites of historical significance, his advisors said.
In Poland, Romney will thank Poland for its commitments of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and tout Poland's relative economic success during the European fiscal crisis.
"This is a country that stands in sharp contrast economically to the rest of Europe... and Poland's success is rooted in its commitment to the principles of free market economies and capitalism," said Romney advisor Ian Brzezinski.
Although Romney will hold public events at all three stops, don't expect any big policy speeches or attacks on the administration's international actions.
"This trip is solely an opportunity to listen and the contrasts will be kept here in the States," said campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will speak at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Political Affairs Tara Sonenshine, and Ambassador-At-Large and U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby will also attend the conference of 20,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries. With the theme of "Turning the Tide Together," AIDS 2012 aims to increase global awareness through convening a group of scientific experts, community leaders, and policy leaders.
The House of Representatives voted 407-5 Thursday to bar the Pentagon from spending any money on deals with Rosoboronexport, the main Russian arms broker that is also providing weapons to the Syrian regime.
The vote came in the context of the debate over the fiscal 2013 defense appropriations bill. Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) offered an amendment to the bill that says the Defense Department may not "enter into a contract, memorandum of understanding, or cooperative agreement with, make a grant to, or provide a loan or loan guarantee to Rosoboronexport."
"It is beyond unacceptable for the United States government to work with a firm that is arming the oppressive Syrian regime," Moran told The Cable. "The United States does not condone the massacre of innocent men, women and children. Furthering contracts with Rosoboronexport contradicts our nation's commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy."
Congressional outrage over the Pentagon's dealings with Rosoboronexport have been building since March, when 17 senators wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to demand an end to U.S. arms deals with the Russian firm.
Russia has supplied more than $1 billion of arms to the Syrian government since the unrest is Syria began, the senators wrote -- including four cargo ships full of weapons that have arrived in Syria since December. Rosoboronexport is Russia's official broker, serving as a middle man for all Russian foreign defense sales. It reportedly signed a new contract with the Syrian regime for 36 combat jets in January.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is in the middle of buying 21 Mi-17 dual-use helicopters from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan security forces. That $375 million deal was granted to the Russian arms broker through a sole-source contract that was never competitively bid, according to Wired. The administration has said Rosoboronexport was the only broker for the helipcopters, which the Afghan military needs.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who has been leading the congressional fight against Rosoboronexport, tried to add two related amendments to the Russian trade bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee July 18. One would have expanded the Magnitsky Act, a related piece of human rights legislation, to include those involved in transferring weapons to the Syrian government. Cornyn withdrew that amendment at the request of the committee leadership.
A second Cornyn amendment would have delayed the implementation of the U.S. granting Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status until the administration could certify that Russia had ceased providing the Syrian regime with lethal weapons. That amendment failed by an 8-16 vote.
On Friday, Syrian-American groups in Washington praised the House for moving to end the Pentagon's business with Rosoboronexport.
"The American-Syrian Council has been working hard to emphasize in Congress how important it is that the United States government send a signal to Russia that continued military support for the Assad regime is a red line" said Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a member of the council. "We will work to secure the necessary votes in the Senate and move quickly to have this DoD contract with Rosoboronexport terminated as quickly as possible."
Syrian refugees are pouring into neighboring countries at an alarming and increasing rate, outpacing the international community's ability to assist them, according to State Department and USAID officials.
"The violence is increasing ... and this increase in violence is, of course, leading to more people, and a larger number of people, that are inside Syria and that are along Syria's borders needing more humanitarian assistance," said Maria Otero, the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy, and human rights.
Otero just returned from Turkey and Jordan, where she met with government officials, nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, human rights activists, and youth groups. She traveled there with Kelly Clements, the deputy assistant secretary of State for the bureau of population, refugees, and migration;
Clements said that as of Thursday, between 117,000 and 125,000 refugees had fled Syria to seek refuge in neighboring countries and thousands more were pouring over the borders each day. 8,500 Syrians crossed the border into Lebanon in the last 24 hours, she said.
As of Thursday, there were about 42,600 refugees in the camps along the Turkish border, she said. In Jordan, there are 37,000 refugees, of which about 35,000 have been registered with UNHCR. In Lebanon, there are 32,500; in Iraq about 8,000.
"There are obviously many more Syrians that have crossed that border but have not availed themselves of the need for international assistance," said Clements, adding that in Lebanon, "those numbers are rising very, very rapidly."
There are also 1.5 million Syrians inside Syria need of urgent assistance, including 300,000 to 500,000 internally displaced persons, but aid workers are struggling to reach them.
"Inside Syria, lack of access due to violence by all parties remains the number one limiting factor for humanitarian assistance. International humanitarian agencies simply are unable to reach those most in need," Clements said.
Aid workers are also being harassed and captured, even killed.
"We know it's been widespread, and we know from organizations that we're working with that medical clinics, health professionals have been targeted. We also know people simply trying to get aid in to help people have been targeted, said Mark Bartolini, director of the office of U.S. foreign disaster assistance.
At the Syria Humanitarian Forum last week in Geneva, the U.S. announced another $6 million in assistance to international organizations dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, bringing the total U.S. commitment in 2012 to $64 million, Clements said.
Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman is in New York for the Arms Trade Treaty Conference at the U.N. Observers say the talks are "a week behind schedule" as the July 27 deadline approaches. The National Rifle Association's opposition to the treaty on the grounds that it could violate citizens' Second Amendment rights promises to hinder President Barack Obama's goal of signing the treaty on deadline.
New York Times columnist David Brooks had some harsh words for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Tuesday.
"Mitt Romney has been wandering around the country trying to find a place to disagree with Barack Obama," he said during a panel discussion at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition's annual conference. "He's desperately trying, and every time he does, he looks like an idiot, because he has to say something so far out there on Russia or whatever it is."
The former governor has certainly taken a tough and colorful approach to U.S.-Russia foreign policy issues. In March, Romney called Russia the United States' "No. 1 geopolitical foe" -- a questionable assertion -- and described President Obama's reset policy as an "abject failure" in June -- a far more defensible critique.
Former senator Norm Coleman (R-MN), the Romney campaign's foreign-policy surrogate at the conference, countered Brooks' rebuke with an outline of the Republican candidate's foreign-policy qualifications and goals.
"As president, Governor Romney will apply the full spectrum of hard and soft power to influence events before they erupt into conflict," he stated.
Coleman also emphasized Romney's commitment to international economic cooperation.
"A Romney administration would put expanded free trade back at the center of our foreign and economic policy," he said. "In his first hundred days he'll launch a campaign to promote economic opportunity in Latin America and.... create the Reagan economic zone, a partnership among countries committed to free enterprise and free trade."
The Obama campaign Thursday called on Mitt Romney to clarify his policy on Afghanistan and highlighted a Romney's advisor's comments downplaying the importance of the issue.
"'Real Americans' care that Romney hasn't outlined a plan for Afghanistan," was the title of an e-mail sent out by the Obama campaign Thursday afternoon on behalf of Rob Diamond, the campaign's director for veterans and military families. Diamond was responding to comments Thursday morning made by Romney Senior Communications Adviser Tara Wall on MSNBC that "real Americans" don't care about Romney's Afghanistan policy.
Wall was responding to questions about an exclusive July 16 report on The Cable, in which we documented that senior senators on both sides of the aisle couldn't articulate Romney's Afghanistan policy, which currently contains sparse specifics on what Romney would do in Afghanistan if elected president.
"You would have to tell me what exactly you mean by ‘his policy.' That's a long discussion that I don't want to get into," Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl told The Cable.
When asked about those comments by MSNBC's Luke Russert, Wall demurred and called the issue a distraction.
"I'm not going to get into the details of that," she said. "Unfortunately it's disappointing that the attacks, these recent attacks on all these issues outside of what the issues are relative to Mitt Romney are diverting away from what real Americans want to talk about. And real Americans want to talk about getting back to work."
Diamond said that real Americans care about the mission in Afghanistan and he criticized Romney for supporting the Paul Ryan budget, which would reduce spending for veterans affairs by $11 billion per year compared to the administration's plan. Overall, the Obama campaign called on Romney to specify exactly what his plan in Afghanistan would be.
"Americans deserve to know what Mitt Romney would do as Commander-in-Chief, and rather than outlining a plan to end the war, he has thus far simply criticized the President for setting a timetable to bring our troops home," said Daimon. "If Governor Romney and his advisors don't have an answer because they don't have a plan, they should let us know that, too."
On Romney's website, the campaign criticizes President Barack Obama for announcing a "timetable" for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and accuses the administration of placing politics over the advice of military commanders by withdrawing 30,000 surge troops by September.
"Gov. Romney supports the 2014 timetable as a realistic timetable and a residual force post-2014. But he would not have announced that timetable publicly, as President Obama did, as doing so encourages the Taliban to wait us out and our allies to hedge their bets," a Romney campaign spokesperson told The Cable.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.