U.S. President Barack Obama's campaign message at this week's Democratic National Convention will be that Mitt Romney's campaign has been avoiding foreign policy -- and when the former Massachusetts governor does talk about it, he puts forward a set of policies that is backwards-looking and frightening.
"We're living in an upside-down world, because for the first time in a generation the Democrats and President Obama hold a decisive advantage in the polls going into the election in terms of the confidence the American people have on foreign policy and national security issues," Colin Kahl, former Obama defense official and co-chair of the Obama campaign's national security advisory team, told The Cable in an interview.
The polls have consistently shown Obama with a double-digit advantage when it comes to foreign policy and national security, and that could be in part because the Republicans have avoided focusing on the issue, especially at their convention in Tampa, he said.
"In Tampa, Republicans were ignoring foreign policy," Kahl said, pointing out that only Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke about foreign policy much at all, while Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, barely mentioned it.
"We will honor America’s democratic ideals because a free world is a more peaceful world," Romney said in his acceptance speech in Tampa. "This is the bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan. And under my presidency we will return to it once again."
Kahl pointed out that Romney didn't mention Afghanistan, the troops fighting overseas, or veterans during his speech.
"The most bizarre element of Mitt Romney's speech is here's a guy who is auditioning to be the commander in chief of the most powerful country on Earth and he forgets to mention the war in Afghanistan, where we have almost 80,000 men and women in harm's way," Kahl said. "He didn't even mention the war in Afghanistan much less let the American people know what he wants to do about it."
The Obama campaign will hammer that theme by making sure its officials and surrogates talk about the ongoing war in Afghanistan with a particular focus on veterans. There are a host of veterans' panel and training events, some being run by the DNCC's Veterans Advisory Group, the DNC Veterans and Military Families Council, and the Truman National Security Project, a center left advocacy organization.
In addition to holding training sessions for veterans and military families on messaging and getting out the military vote for Obama, groups like the Truman Project will hold public events such as a breakfast panel Sept. 5 with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, the other co-chair of the Obama campaign's national security advisory group, and Iraq veteran and congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth.
Obama and his team this week will also tout the president's record on fighting terrorism, his decision to green-light the mission that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and the fulfillment of his 2008 campaign promise to end the war in Iraq.
Kahl said that the Obama campaign will push back on Romney's claim that Obama doesn't believe in American exceptionalism. "Guess what: Democrats think American is exceptional and great too. We love our country as much as the Republicans do. So that's not a distinction between us," he said.
Kahl speculated that the Romney campaign has been reluctant to talk about several foreign-policy issues, such as the war in Afghanistan, because in many areas the former governor's policies aren't actually all that different from the president's.
"They like to describe our current policies but masquerade that description as criticism. Any criticism on Afghanistan obscures the fact that Mitt Romney basically endorses the president's way forward, as far as we can tell. On Israel and Iran, Romney talks tough but his policies would be identical to those of President Obama," he said.
Romney does have distinctly different policies from Obama on dealing with major powers like Russia and China, but those policies are risky and backward-looking, Kahl argued.
"In those few areas where there are differences, [Romney's] policies are downright scary, whether it's calling Russia our No. 1 geopolitical foe or threatening to start a trade war with China on day one of his administration," he said.
In his acceptance speech in Tampa, Romney touched on a few foreign policy issues, briefly.
"Every American is less secure today because he has failed to slow Iran's nuclear threat. In his first TV interview as president, he said we should talk to Iran. We're still talking, and Iran’s centrifuges are still spinning," Romney said. "President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus..."
Kahl said those arguements are just rhetoric and that Romney doesn't have policies that would change the U.S. approach to Iran or Israel in any significant way.
"On Israel, by any objective measure Obama has been a better for Israel's security than any president in modern times," said Kahl. "On Iran, Mitt Romney's writings on this have been descriptions of the president's policies described as criticisms. The only difference you get is bluster and tough talk. Some of his surrogates like John Bolton want to go to war yesterday, but it's not clear that's where Mitt Romney is."
Republicans often accuse Obama of "spiking the football" after the killing of bin Laden, but Kahl said that Republicans have no right to claim the moral high ground on that issue.
"That's a little ironic from a party whose last president landed on an aircraft carrier and declared ‘Mission Accomplished' in Iraq," he said. "Brining justice to Osama bin Laden is something that all Americans should be proud of. This was an extraordinarily tough call."
Democratic groups will be speaking about a range of other national security and foreign policy issues this week in Charlotte as well. Flournoy and former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs Douglas Wilson will speak at an event on the defense budget hosted by Bloomberg Sept. 4. Nuclear non-proliferation will be discussed at a Sept. 5 event put on by the Council for a Livable World and featuring former ambassador Peter Galbraith. Former State Department official Tamara Wittes will speak at a Sept. 5 event on the role of women in the new Middle East.
On Thurs, Sept. 6, Truman will hold a series of discussions on foreign policy featuring Kahl, Wilson, Zvika Krieger, senior vice president at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, Janine Davidson, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans, Steven Koltai, former senior advisor for entrepreneurship to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Paula Broadwell, author of All In, a biography of CIA director and retired general David Petraeus.
Also on Thursday, the National Democratic Institute will team up with the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition to put on an event featuring Albright, Flournoy, former U.S. Ambassador to India Tim Roemer, former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, and White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew.
All of those events lead into a
national security themed segment of the final program Sept. 6 at Bank of
America stadium, which will feature a speech by Senate Foreign Relations
Committee Chairman John Kerry
"The American people understand that President Obama has been a strong commander-in-chief, and we're looking forward to highlighting these important issues at the convention," an Obama campaign official said. "Senator Kerry will speak to how the President has restored America's leadership in the world, has taken the fight to our enemies, and has a plan to bring our troops home from Afghanistan just like he did from Iraq. He will contrast the President's strong leadership in this area with Mitt Romney, who has embraced the go-it-alone, reckless policies of the past that weakened America's place in the world and made us less secure here at home."
The biggest looming question about how a President Mitt Romney would steer the American ship of state is whether he would favor the realist tendencies of the Republican Party establishment or the neoconservative leanings of its younger generation.
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, mooted by some as a possible secretary of state in a Romney administration, told The Cable in an exclusive interview Wednesday that Romney won't choose either side and would rather chart his own foreign-policy vision based on his core beliefs about how the world works and what American's role should be in it.
"I would put him in the Mitt Romney school," Pawlenty when asked to which school of foreign policy the former governor adheres.
Romney won't choose between one camp or the other and will chart out his policies on international issues on a case-by-case basis, Pawlenty said. But the evidence so far shows that Romney is more certainly more hawkish and aggressive than President Barack Obama, he said.
"If you look at [Romney's] philosophical and directional comments and policy positions, you see him speak to the importance of a strong America and that strength being backed up by the capabilities provided by a robust funding of the military," Pawlenty said.
"I think you've seen Romney take a more robust approach [than Obama] on issues such as how you deal with Russia, how you deal with China, how you deal with arming and equipping the rebels on the ground in Syria without putting American boots on the ground," Pawlenty said. "In terms of where that falls within the gradations of conservative foreign policy, I put him in the Mitt Romney's school, not somebody else's school."
The questions over Romney's foreign-policy core identity is paramount because he has little hands-on experience on international affairs, the former governor's critics say.
At a Wednesday event hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neoconservative-leaning organization, Pawlenty argued that Romney's chief national security credential is his core confidence in his foreign- policy vision and knowledge.
"Knowing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan quite well, I would say to you that they are directionally and foundationally sturdy and sound, and quite Reaganesque in that regard," Pawlenty told the audience. "Mitt Romney is a prolific reader and a student of history ... I'm highly confident it will not be amateur hour."
Pawlenty, the co-chair of Romney's campaign and a top surrogate, holds well-formed foreign policy views on a range of issues and spoke often during his bid for president about his views on foreign policy, which combines a hawkish approach to dealing with enemies with an emphasis on soft power and support for foreign aid.
He is among a few names rumored to be in contention for the job of secretary of state in a future Romney administration, along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass. Lieberman skews toward neoconservatism, Haass toward realism, with Pawlenty somewhere in between. The head of national security transition planning on the Romney campaign's "Readiness Project" is former World Bank President Bob Zoellick, a devout realist who may want the Foggy Bottom job for himself.
Pawlenty said he is not working with the "Readiness Project" in a formal way yet and declined to say whether he would accept a top job in a future Romney administration.
"I don't know what my future holds but I will tell you I'm thoroughly enjoying my time in the private sector," he said.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of The Cable's exclusive interview with Pawlenty, which includes new information on how a Romney administration would deal with the challenges of Iran, Syria, Middle East peace, and the looming defense budget cuts.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Two leading congressmen are calling on the Obama administration to use its leverage in international financial institutions to press for greater fiscal transparency in Burma, formally known as Myanmar, and ensure progress in the human rights situation in the Southeast Asian country as it emerges from decades of isolation.
The two leaders of the House Committee on Financial Services, Chairman Spencer Bachus (R-AL), and ranking Democrat Barney Frank (D-MA) wrote a letter Aug. 22, obtained by The Cable, to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner asking him to safeguard the fragile reform process in Burma and ensure that Burma's opening to the world is done according to international financial management standards and with respect to the welfare of the Burmese people. Today Burmese President Thein Sein reshuffled his cabinet, replacing key ministers with reform minded appointees.
The lawmakers specifically called out the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which saw sanctions relief from the U.S. government despite suspected corruption and ties the Burmese military. Obama lifted the ban on U.S. companies doing business with MOGE in July, over the objections of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, now a member of the circumscribed Burmese legislature.
"We are cautiously optimistic that Burma will continue to implement necessary reforms, but we believe vigilance on questions of government transparency and human rights remain critical," the lawmakers wrote. "We urge the administration to use its leadership at the IFIs [international financial institutions] to emphasize fiscal transparency, systems of accountability and respect for human rights and to insist that the institutions pay close attention to the urgent social needs of the Burmese people."
They want the IMF's Code of Good Practice on Fiscal Transparency enforced on all branches of the Burmese government, including the military and MOGE. The code would require the government and its state enterprises (including MOGE), in essence, to publish their revenues and expenditures and subject them to public and parliamentary oversight, as well as an independent auditing process.
"Such transparency is necessary is necessary not only to allow the IFIs to properly supervise the use of multilateral aid but also to help end corruption and the off budget funding of the Burmese military," the letter states.
Burma is a resource-rich county that could provide for its people but remains mired in corruption and mismanagement, Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told The Cable.
He said that IFI lending for big infrastructure projects, absent fiscal transparency reforms, could reinforce those bad habits, making the promotion of fiscal transparency central to the IFIs' mission. The IFIs hold good leverage over the Burmese government because infrastructure development is one of the regime's key goals.
"The key question in Burma's reform process is whether elected civilians will wrest full control over the country from the military establishment, including control of revenues from Burma's lucrative oil and gas and mineral exports. It's not just Aung San Suu Kyi who wants this - Burma's reformist president and its new parliament also have a huge stake in figuring out where the money is and asserting their authority to oversee how it's spent," Malinowski said. "It would help them if the IFI's prioritized fiscal transparency - providing technical assistance to help the Burmese get there, and holding up lending for big infrastructure projects until they do."
Republican officials, candidates, pundits, and supporters are flocking en masse to Tampa next week for the Republican National Convention -- assuming Tropical Storm Isaac doesn't disrupt the festivities. The Cable will be on the scene covering all the foreign policy and national security news in and around the event.
For the campaign of presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, the convention is an opportunity to bring foreign policy into the election discussion in a way he hasn't before and to showcase the support of major national security surrogates, lawmakers, and advisors who will be speaking at a host of convention events, panels, and receptions throughout the week. The campaign isn't planning on rolling out any grand, new national security themes, though there will be plenty of criticism of President Barack Obama's handling of foreign policy.
"It will be a reaffirmation of Romney's commitment to peace through strength," senior campaign foreign-policy advisor Rich Williamson told The Cable. "You're not going to see a lot of new stuff. Romney has shown his approach in the tradition of Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan, in contrast with the Obama approach, which is really out of the mainstream and radical."
Romney foreign-policy advisors who will be speaking on the sidelines of the convention include Williamson, Tim Pawlenty, Norm Coleman, Jim Talent, Vin Weber, John Bolton, Mitchell Reiss, and others. Several current and former GOP officials are also slated to give public speeches that will touch on foreign policy and national security themes, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Rand Paul (R-KY), John Thune (R-SD), former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz.
The first major foreign-policy news from the convention will come Monday, Aug. 27, when the GOP rolls out and then officially approves its platform, which has several foreign policy planks. Although the platform is not yet public, Williamson said the document will stress the need for economic renewal so that the United States can lead abroad and this can be "an American century."
The platform will also emphasize the imperative of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, the view that Obama's Russian "reset" policy has failed, and that the GOP has concern about the impotence of the United Nations and what it argues is the Obama administration's overdependence on multilateralism. The platform condemns authoritarian regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, and criticizes the Obama administration for leaking classified national security information to the press.
On Israel, the platform will codify Romney's position that Jerusalem is the capital while also calling for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for. The platform will "envision two democratic states -- Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine -- living in peace and security," a commitment to a two-state solution that evoked considerable debate during the drafting process.
The platform supports foreign aid, saying, "Foreign aid should serve our national interest, an essential part of which is the peaceful development of less advanced and vulnerable societies in critical parts of the world. Assistance should be seen as an alternative means of keeping the peace, far less costly in both dollars and human lives than military engagement."
Some big foreign-policy issues not debated in the platform drafting process will be brought out during the course of the convention week. On Syria, Republicans plan to try to sharpen the distinction between how Obama has handled the crisis and what they say Romney would have done in the same situation.
"The president's risk-averse path of leading from behind creates greater risk than if he acted. By not acting, we now face greater dangers and more costly action to protect our interests," Williamson said.
Several think tanks and issue organizations are planning events around town to feature surrogates, advisors, and lawmakers in somewhat more intimate settings. The International Republican Institute is hosting a panel Aug. 28 on the future of U.S. national security with former Rep. Jim Kolbe, Williamson, Coleman, Talent, and Weber.
The Foreign Policy Initiative is hosting an event Aug. 28 on the future of U.S-Russia relations with Bolton, Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, and another event Aug. 29 on restoring American leadership with Pawlenty and William Kristol. Also on Aug. 29, IRI is teaming up with the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition to present an international development-focused event featuring Rice, Reiss, Williamson, Pawlenty, Paula Dobriansky and Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX).
"The convention's a real opportunity for Governor Romney to sharpen his foreign-policy critique of the Obama administration and for the greater Republican foreign-policy community to showcase what foreign policy in a Romney administration would look like," said Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.
Follow all the action here on The Cable and on Twitter @joshrogin.
UPDATE: The RNC accidentally posted the draft platform today and then took it down, but you can find it here.
Adm. William McRaven, the head of Special Operations Command and the architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, wrote a memo to the special operations community making clear that using the "special operations" moniker for political purposes is not OK.
McRaven sent an unclassified memo, not released to the public but obtained by The Cable, that began with an admonishment of special operators who write books about secret operations, such as the forthcoming book No Easy Day¸ which was written by a Navy SEAL who claims to have been part of the May 1, 2011 raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. Fox News reported Thursday that the author is 36-year-old Matt Bissonnette, whom defense officials say never cleared the book with anyone in the Pentagon.
But the second half of McRaven's memo referred to the multiple groups of former special operators who have formed political groups to criticize President Barack Obama for what they see as taking undue credit for the bin Laden raid and accusing him of leaking its details to the press. Those groups are made up of former military men who had no connection to the actual raid, who often have Republican political leanings and longtime animus against Obama, and some of whom say the president was not born in the United States.
"I am also concerned about the growing trend of using the special operations ‘brand,' our seal, symbols and unit names, as part of any political or special interest campaign," McRaven wrote in an implicit but clear reference to groups like the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund and Special Operations Speaks (SOS).
"Let me be completely clear on this issue: USSOCOM does not endorse any political viewpoint, opinion or special interest," McRaven wrote. "I encourage, strongly encourage active participation in our political process by both active duty SOF personnel, where it is appropriate under the ethics rules and retired members of the SOF community. However, when a group brands itself as Special Operations for the purpose of pushing a specific agenda, then they have misrepresented the entire nature of SOF and life in the military."
"Our promise to the American people is that we, the military, are non-partisan, apolitical and will serve the President of the United States regardless of his political party. By attaching a Special Operation's moniker or a unit or service name to a political agenda, those individuals have now violated the most basic of our military principles," McRaven wrote.
His remarks are stronger but along the same lines as those by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who said the groups' efforts were counter to the ethos of the military.
"It's not useful. It's not useful to me," Dempsey said Wednesday. "And one of the things that marks us as a profession in a democracy, in our form of democracy, that's most important is that we remain apolitical. That's how we maintain our bond and trust with the American people."
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The head of the Pakistan military's public relations branch told The Cable that a new book claiming a Pakistani intelligence official tipped off the U.S. government about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden is false.
A forthcoming book by journalist Richard Miniter claims that a senior colonel in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate walked into the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad in Dec ember 2010, five months before the bin Laden raid, and told U.S. officials about bin Laden's whereabouts. The book also reports that the bin Laden compound was "carved out" of Abbottabad's Kakul Military Academy and that senior Pakistani military officials may have been briefed on the raid in advance.
Maj. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa, the recently appointed director general of Pakistan's Inter-Services Public Relations and the top spokesperson for the Pakistani military and intelligence community, told The Cable by e-mail that Miniter's story is just wrong.
"This is a fabricated story," he said. "Any such story will not have basis and is an attempt to malign Pakistan and Pakistan Army."
The tale implies that the ISI had some advance knowledge that bin Laden had been hiding in Abbottabad with several members of his family before the May 1, 2011, U.S. raid, Bajwa said.
"You can find twists in [the Miniter story] to show as if Pakistan was helping terrorists, which is incorrect," he said.
Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani told a Washington audience Wednesday that although he could not comment on ISI activities the night of the bin Laden raid, he was sure that the civilian government in Pakistan was caught by surprise about the raid and bin Laden's whereabouts.
But Haqqani called on the Pakistani government to complete its long-promised report on who helped bin Laden and his family hide and survive in a secret compound near a military academy for more than five years.
"It's Pakistan's responsibility to the world to say who did it," Haqqani told an audience at the Center for the National Interest, formerly known as the Nixon Center. "It doesn't have to be the government, it doesn't have to be the military, but whoever it is, we have to come clean on that, because that is the only way we will assure the rest of the world that Pakistan's government and Pakistan's state has its hands clean on this whole thing."
The Pakistani government must explain how Osama bin Laden was able to hide in Abbottabad for years and reveal who in Pakistan helped him, Pakistan's former Ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani said Wednesday.
"It's Pakistan's responsibility to the world to say who did it," Haqqani told an audience at the Center for the National Interest, formerly known as the Nixon Center. "It doesn't have to be the government, it doesn't have to be the military, but whoever it is, we have to come clean on that, because that is the only way we will assure the rest of the world that Pakistan's government and Pakistan's state has its hands clean on this whole thing."
Haqqani said that he has no information on how the late al Qaeda leader lived with a large number of family for five years in a military garrison town, but that there were clearly sympathizers in Pakistan that supported bin Laden and the government has failed to issue any report on who they were.
"There's no report on bin Laden yet. No one is saying it was the government ... but somebody helped him. Somebody bought the place for him, somebody paid for the electricity bills, somebody helped bring food there, and at least that should be identified and it hasn't been," he said. "Somebody knew. I mean, nobody lives anywhere without anybody knowing. Even Friday knew where Robinson Crusoe was. Somebody in Pakistan knew. Who that somebody is, it's Pakistan's responsibility to identify."
Haqqani speculated that bin Laden might have been helped by a private group, a set of individuals, people in Pakistan's jihadi groups, or people in Pakistan's Islamic political parties. He said the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is hampered by the lack of official answers.
"The bin Laden event was a very huge event from the point of view of American psyche and it hasn't registered in Pakistan sufficiently ... I tried very hard at that time in Islamabad to get people to realize that people in Washington really want answers," he said.
A forthcoming book by journalist Richard Miniter claims that a senior colonel in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate walked into the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad in Dec. 2010, five months before the bin Laden raid, and told U.S. officials about bin Laden's whereabouts. The book also reports that the bin Laden compound was "carved out" of the Kakul Military Academy and that senior Pakistani military officials may have been briefed on the raid in advance.
Haqqani said he has no idea what the ISI knew or did but he can be sure that the civilian leadership in Pakistan had no idea that the Abbottabad raid was coming on the night of May 1, 2011.
"We really, on the Pakistani side, were totally taken by surprise by what happened on May 1, 2011. That said, a full, proper investigation on the Pakistani side is needed to find out how Osama bin Laden lived in Pakistan and who supported him, within or outside the government," said Haqqani.
Haqqani returned to Washington earlier this year following three months of house arrest in Pakistan while the Pakistani Supreme Court investigated the "Memogate" scandal, in which Haqqani stood accused of being behind a secret memo passed from Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz to Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, calling on the United States to support an overthrow of the military and intelligence leadership in Pakistan.
A commission set up by the Supreme Court eventually determined that Haqqani was behind the memo, but Haqqani maintains that he was not and that the commission's ruling was politically motivated. He has not been indicted on any charges and is free to go back to Pakistan, he said, but fears for his safety if he were to travel there. He returns to Boston this fall to resume teaching at Boston University.
Haqqani's new book, Magnificent Delusions, is set to come out later this year. The book argues that, since 1947, Washington and Islamabad's tumultuous relationship has been based on the false assumption that if the two countries could simply engage enough, they could develop a close strategic relationship based on overlapping interests.
"I have reached the conclusion that 60 years is long enough for two countries to understand if they really do see things each other's way," he said. "The two countries should look for a non-alliance future that is not based on security assistance and aid."
Opinions of the two countries among their respective populations is at historical lows, Haqqani noted, and the relationship won't change for the better until the unhealthy dynamic of giving and then threatening to withdraw U.S. aid to Pakistan is ended, he argued.
"Pakistan ends up behaving like Syria while wanting to be treated like Israel," Haqqani said.
He called for an amicable divorce in the relationship.
"If in 65 years if you haven't been able to find sufficient common ground to live together and you've had three separations and four affirmations of marriage, then maybe the better way is to find friendship outside of the marital bond," he said.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
The war of words between Britain and Ecuador escalated Thursday over the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but the State Department said the United States is staying out of it.
Ecuador formally granted Assange political asylum Thursday as the WikiLeaks founder continues to hole up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where he has been since June avoiding extradition to Sweden for questioning related to allegations of sexual assault. Earlier this week, the British government affirmed its right to go into the embassy and get Assange, provoking a harsh diplomatic response from the Ecuadoran government.
"The United Kingdom does not recognize the principle of diplomatic asylum," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters Thursday. "There is no ... threat here to storm the embassy. We are talking about an Act of Parliament in this country which stresses that it must be used in full conformity with international law."
Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said that he fears if Assange is sent to Sweden he could then be sent on to the United States, where he would not be able to receive a fair trial. Patino called Assange an enemy of the "corrupt" media and U.S. "imperialism."
In Washington, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Thursday that the U.S. government takes no position on the extradition of Assange to Sweden and that the United States is not involved in the issue at the diplomatic level.
"This is an issue between the Ecuadorans, the Brits, the Swedes," said Nuland. "It is an issue among the countries involved and we're not planning to interject ourselves."
Nor has the United States gotten involved on the issue of Assange's current location or where he might end up, Nuland said. She declined to say if the United States supported the British position that it does not recognize the principle of political asylum in the first place.
Reporters at the briefing pointed out that the U.S. has invoked the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in the past, which states, "The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enterthem, except with the consent of the head of the mission." But Nuland declined to get into that issue, saying only that the Brits were invoking British law in this case.
"Well, if you're asking me for a global legal answer to the question. I'll have to take it and consult 4,000 lawyers," Nuland said. "With regard to the decision that the Brits are making or the statement that they made, our understanding was that they were leaning on British law in the assertions that they made with regard to future plans, not on international law."
Pressed on whether or not the United States has been involved in the Assange extradition in any way, Nuland said not as far as she knows. She added that she doesn't think the Justice Department was planning on charging him with anything anyway.
"My information is that we have not involved ourselves in this," she said. "But with regard to the charge that the U.S. was intent on persecuting him, I reject that completely."
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
North Korean officials threatened to reconsider existing agreements with the United States in a recent meeting in Singapore, two sources familiar with the discussions told The Cable.
The North Korean warning comes as analysts speculate that Pyongyang may be preparing a fresh nuclear test, a development that could raise tensions in Asia and embarrass U.S. President Barack Obama in the middle of a closely fought re-election campaign.
Top U.S. experts held a "track two" meeting in the island nation in late July, during which the North Koreans hardened their negotiating position and rejected any return to the latest deal struck between the two sides, but nevertheless left the door open to further talks with the United States and the international community.
The meeting was the first of its kind since North Korea tried and failed to launch a rocket into space in April, which precipitated a U.S. withdrawal from the Feb. 29 bilateral agreement to give North Korea food aid in exchange for concessions on the country's nuclear and missile programs.
At the secret meetings in Singapore, the North Koreans told two U.S. experts they were no longer interested in resurrecting that arrangement and said they were reconsidering their previous agreements to eventually denuclearize as well.
On the North Korean side of the table were Han Song-ryol, North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations and Choe Son Hui, the deputy director-general of the North American affairs bureau in the DPRK foreign ministry. On the American side were six experts led by Joel Wit, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator, and including Corey Hinderstein, vice president of the international program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Some reports said that there was a also a July meeting in New York between Han and Clifford Hart, the U.S. special envoy to the defunct Six-Party Talks.
"The agenda [in Singapore] focused on a variety of issues. One important topic was the future of U.S.-North Korean relations," said one source familiar with the meeting. "The other topics were nuclear safety, nuclear security, cooperative ways of monitoring denuclearization, and the whole raft of issues people discuss at nuclear summits."
When the conversation was on the future of bilateral relations, the North Korean side made clear it was no longer interested in the Feb. 29 agreement, which included a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, a return of international inspectors, and 240,000 tons of food aid, both sources said.
The North Koreans now want the United States to make concessions up front.
"Their position has shifted. Whereas before, under the Leap Day deal, it was simultaneous actions, as with the September 2005 joint statement, simultaneous actions were one of the key aspects. There is now emphasis on unilateral action by the U.S. and then the North Koreans may respond," one source said.
The North Koreans told their American interlocutors they were thinking internally about whether or not to scuttle the September 2005 joint statement altogether. That statement committed North Korea to eventually getting rid of its nuclear weapons program.
An Aug. 9 article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists written by Frank Pabian and Sigfried Hecker speculated that North Korea may be only weeks away from completing the preparations necessary to conduct a third nuclear test using either a plutonium or highly-enriched uranium (HEU) device or both. At the Singapore meeting, the North Koreans didn't broach the topic.
"They didn't make any explicit statements about their nuclear program," one source said, "but I think it's very clear that their program is moving forward. That doesn't necessarily mean nuclear tests. It's quite likely their HEU program is also moving forward."
The source noted that as part of their formal presentation, the very first point the North Korean officials made was that their new leadership is not changing the late leader Kim Jong Il's line that North Korea has no eternal enemies or eternal friends.
"That's a very clear signal that they still want to make continuing efforts to improve relations with the U.S. and are indeed are interested in that. But they are toughening their position and that's in part because they are feeling pretty good about where they are," the source said.
The North Koreans believe they have weathered the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" -- waiting for Pyongyang to make the first move while strengthening ties with U.S. allies in Asia.
"The North Koreans feel pretty confident in their position. They are still keeping the door open to improving ties with the U.S. but the price is getting higher and it's becoming more difficult," the source said. "At some point somebody will be back to the table with them. They are getting ready for that with a much tougher negotiating position. They think they're sitting pretty."
Of course, North Korea still faces a food crisis, devastating floods, and an economic crisis. Pyongyang might seek to trade nuclear concessions in exchange for aid, as it has in the past. But as long as the country continues to get assistance from China, its motivation to make concessions is low.
"They probably can continue to progress economically while avoiding making concessions on the nuclear front with the support of China and that seems to be the option that they've chosen," the source observed.
Two congressmen who lead on human rights issues wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week to urge her to address the growing crisis in Tibet, where tensions, protests, and self-immolations are mounting.
"We write to urge that you undertake stronger, more coordinated, visible international steps with regards to the People's Republic of China's policies and practices towards Tibetans," wrote Reps. Jim McGovern (D-MA), chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Frank Wolf (R-VA), in an Aug. 9 letter. "We appreciate your efforts with regards to courageous individuals such as Chen Guangcheng. Yet we believe that the United States can and must significantly increase diplomatic and international pressure on the Chinese government to reverse the crisis in Tibet."
The congressmen noted that more than three dozen Tibetans have self-immolated in protest over the last year alone amid an increasingly restrictive environment that includes arbitrary detention, sham trials, harsh prison sentences, the use of reeducation camps, and a sharp increase in the Chinese military presence in and around Tibet.
They also noted the Chinese crackdown on religious freedom in Tibet, as reported in the 2011 State Department International Religious Freedom Report released last month, and the new Chinese policy of expelling ethnic Tibetans from Lhasa while importing Han Chinese.
"The situation is unambiguously deteriorating, and none of these actions comport with the Chinese government's rhetoric of respect for the rights of ethnic minorities, religious freedom, or a quest for a ‘harmonious society' in the region," the congressmen wrote.
In an interview last month with The Cable, the Tibetan prime minister in exile, Lobsang Sangay, called on the Obama administration to send a fact-finding mission to Tibet.
"At the larger level, if Tibetans are ignored, essentially what you're ignoring is nonviolence and democracy," Sangay 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."
The congressmen called on Clinton to convene an international meeting on Tibet, perhaps alongside the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York next month, and to establish a contact group with other countries that are concerned about the situation.
"As the United States continues its ‘pivot' towards Asia, it is important that the U.S. demonstrate that it is not deaf to the desperate appeals for help and support emanating from the Tibetans," they wrote.
Now that President Barack Obama has signed the latest new sanctions bill on Iran, lawmakers are urging him to enforce it, starting with penalties against governments that reflag Iranian tankers, namely Tuvalu and Tanzania.
House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) responded to reports that the government of Tuvalu has reflagged 36 Iranian tankers by writing to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner yesterday that they should enforce the new law and punish the Tuvaluans.
"The legislation makes clear the Congressional intent that sanctions are to be used to counteract Iran's shipping operations that help support its weapons program and terrorism," Berman wrote.
On July 9, Berman wrote to the Tuvalu prime minister to urge him to stop reflagging Iranian ships. The Tuvalu government responded with a letter saying its actions didn't violate U.N. sanctions and that the reflagged ships were only for storing oil and shipping to countries exempted by sanctions.
The Tanzanian government, which has also come under fire for reflagging Iranian tankers, announced this week that it would de-register 36 Iranian ships that had been reflagged. But Berman said that while Tanzania has made progress, Tuvalu is still ignoring the pressure from the international community.
"The U.S. has had some success, most recently with the announcement by the Government of Tanzania that it is de-registering NITC vessels," Berman wrote to Clinton and Geithner. "However, with other governments, the U.S. must take more robust action."
Section 202 of the law, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, calls for sanctions against any entity that assists Iran in concealing the identity of its vessels. Executive Order 13608 also authorizes sanctions and penalties against such entities.
Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) wrote to Obama today to call on the administration to use both tools now to increase the pressure on countries that may be aiding Iran in reflagging its ships. They want Treasury to designate the Tanzania Zanzibar International Register of Shipping, based in the United Arab Emirates, and the Tuvalu Ship Registry, based in Singapore, for helping conceal the identity of ships belonging to the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), a sanctioned entity.
"The actions of the Tanzanian and Tuvaluan ship registries directly undermine the international community's ongoing diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear and ballistic missile technology, and appear to be in violation of the legislation you just signed into law," the senators wrote.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, his would-be vice president Paul Ryan, and defense hawks in Congress are wrong that savings can't be found in the U.S. defense budget, according to Grover Norquist, the influential president of Americans for Tax Reform, who said that he will fight using any new revenues to keep military spending high.
"We can afford to have an adequate national defense which keeps us free and safe and keeps everybody afraid to throw a punch at us, as long as we don't make some of the decisions that previous administrations have, which is to over extend ourselves overseas and think we can run foreign governments," Norquist said Monday at an event at the Center for the National Interest, formerly the Nixon Center.
But Ryan's views are at odds with those of Norquist and other budget hawks, who argue that defense budgets can be trimmed. Ryan's budget plan provides for increasing military spending and doesn't suggest any tradeoff or specific defense reforms.
"Other people need to lead the argument on how can conservatives lead a fight to have a serious national defense without wasting money," Norquist said. "I wouldn't ask Ryan to be the reformer of the defense establishment."
Avoiding $54 billion of arbitrary defense cuts next year as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, in what's known as "sequestration," has been a focus of Romney's campaign and one of his main points of contrast with President Obama. Romney's views align him with defense hawks who are leading that effort on the Hill, such as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who support closing tax loopholes and deductions to avoid sequestration.
"You will get serious conversation from the advocates of Pentagon spending when they understand ‘here's the dollar amount, now make decisions," Norquist said. "They want to argue you have to raise taxes -- you can't solve the problem."
Norquist vowed to fight any effort to use the money saved by tax reform to pay for military spending or to avoid the sequester.
"You have guys saying ‘can we steal all your deductions and credits and give it to the appropriators,' and then when we get tax reform there will be no tax reform," Norquist said, referring to defense hawks. "The idea is that you are going to raise taxes on people to not think through defense priorities."
But Norquist predicted that the defense hawks will lose the battle inside the GOP. The ultimate decision-makers, he said, would be the heads of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, not the respective Armed Services Committees.
"Here's the good news. There's a very small number of them," Norquist said about the defense hawks. "The handful of [Republicans] that support that are either not coming back or they don't know yet that they are not coming back."
The Pentagon wastes money on bloated weapons systems, bases, and programs that are protected by politicians for parochial reasons, he said. Norquist said the defense hawks were not serious about saving money or reforming the Pentagon.
"If you're not looking like you're trying, nobody wants to help you, starting with me... There's a lack of seriousness," he said. "The guys who are saying ‘we're not going to cut Pentagon spending but we want to raise taxes,' they aren't making a sale... They are saying it's not a tax increase. It is, it is, it is."
Norquist said he believes in a non-interventionist foreign policy that eschews nation-building, much like the one former president George W. Bush campaigned on before he decided to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Bush decided to be the mayor of Baghdad rather than the president of the United States. He decided to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan rather than reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That had tremendous consequences," he said. "Rather than doing Doha [the trade round], we did Kabul."
Romney has promised to keep defense spending at 4 percent of U.S. GDP, but Norquist doesn't believe that defense spending should be pegged to the size of the U.S. economy or any other arbitrary number. He argued that the Republican Party needs to reexamine the actual defense needs and then work from there to determine how much to spend.
"Richard Nixon said that America's national defense needs are set in Moscow, meaning that we wouldn't have to spend so much if they weren't shooting at us," he said. "The guys who followed didn't notice that the Soviet Union disappeared."
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The Treasury and State Departments announced Friday that the U.S. government is sanctioning Hezbollah for supporting the Syrian regime, even though the Lebanese militia is already sanctioned for being a terrorist group and the new announcement doesn't actually change those sanctions at all.
"This action highlights Hezbollah's activities within Syria as well as its integral role in the continued violence being carried out by the Assad regime against the Syrian population," Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen said on a Friday afternoon conference call.
He noted that Hezbollah is already sanctioned as a terrorist group, since 1995, for numerous terrorist acts including the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 Marines. Hezbollah has perpetrated attacks in South America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and various countries in the Middle East, and tried to carry out attacks in Azerbaijan, Egypt, Thailand, and Cyprus, Cohen said.
The Assad regime has given the group weapons, money, and safe haven for training camps, and now Hezbollah is repaying the favor by providing training, advice, and logistical support to the Syrian government, he said, especially in how to wage a counterinsurgency.
"Since the start of the unrest in Syria in early 2011, Hezbollah has directly trained Syrian government personnel inside Syria and has facilitated the training of Syrian forces by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qods Force," said Cohen. "Hezbollah has also played a substantial role in efforts to expel Syrian opposition forces from areas within Syria."
State Department's counterterrorism czar Amb. Daniel Benjamin said that Hezbollah is coordinating directly in Syria with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. He pointed to press reports that Hezbollah was behind recent terrorist attacks on Israelis in Thailand and Belgium, and accused the group of narcotics trafficking and international money laundering.
"Hezbollah believes that there have been sustained Israeli and Western campaigns against the group and its primary backers, Iran and Syria, over the past several years. And this perception is unlikely to change," he said. "Both [Hezbollah and Iran] remain determined to exact revenge against Israel and to respond forcefully to the Western-led pressure against Iran and Syria."
The Cable asked both officials if designating Hezbollah for sanctions, which freezes the group's U.S.-based assets and bars Americans from doing business with Hezbollah, has any added concrete effect if done twice. They said the added effect is in the court of public opinion.
"It will put the group in a more difficult situation, and, I think, will make them think long and hard before they continue this campaign in which the Syrian people are being brutalized. So we do see very concrete benefits coming from this designation," said Benjamin. "Whether they will be in the area of financial sanctions or not remains to be seen, but in terms of casting a bright light on what the group is doing, I think that's vitally important."
So the Treasury Department doesn't have to actually do anything to enforce the new designation it wasn't doing already, and Hezbollah doesn't feel any additional direct pain. Cohen said the Hezbollah's assets should already be frozen but there is additional impact in adding the new designation.
"The purpose of our designations, whether it's the Hezbollah action today or any of our other designations under our authorities, is not solely focused on the immediate financial impact, but as Ambassador Benjamin just expressed, to expose the activity of the party that is being designated for the conduct that has led to the designation," he said.
Benjamin said that the Obama administration hopes other countries will follow suit, not mentioning the European Union specifically, but he wouldn't say there is any indication other countries are planning any such announcement any time soon.
Cohen wouldn't comment on whether or not Hezbollah even has any assets in the United States in the first place.
"As noted before, to the extent that they are here, they should have already been frozen, and anyone who has Hezbollah assets in their possession is required to report those to OFAC. But beyond that, I can't comment," he said.
For those on Capitol Hill who are skeptical of the administration's sanctions and diplomacy-based approach toward pressuring the Assad regime to stop killing its own people, today's action seemed less than consequential.
"Today's announcement appears more about politics than policy, style more than substance," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. "This hollow designation may be pleasing to Obama strategists in Chicago, but it won't do a thing to help the people dying in the streets of Syria."
In a separate action today, the administration also sanctioned the Syrian state-run oil company Sytrol under the Iran Sanctions Act as amended by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act.
"These sanctions are because of transactions that Sytrol engaged in with Iran's energy sector, and I think the action we're taking today highlights the really serious concerns that the United States has about the close ties shared by the Iranian and Syrian regimes and the fact that we, the United States, are committed to using every tool available to prevent regional destabilization," a senior administration official said on a different Friday afternoon conference call.
The neoconservative wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment is up in arms about Mitt Romney's selection of realist Bob Zoellick to head his national security transition team, but the realists have been the Republicans who steered the ship of U.S. foreign policy the best, according to Zoellick's mentor, former Secretary of State James Baker.
"I know where I am; I think I know where Henry Kissinger and George Shultz are. I think we were all pretty darn successful secretaries of state," Baker said in a long interview Thursday with The Cable. "I also know something else: I know the American people are tired of paying the cost, in blood and treasure, of these wars that we get into that sometimes do not represent a direct national security threat to the United States."
Baker argued that the George H.W. Bush-led 1990-1991 Gulf War, which was prosecuted by an international coalition Baker himself played a key role in creating, was a more successful model than the wars that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that happen to have been urged and led by neoconservative officials in the George W. Bush administration.
"That was a textbook example of the way to go to war," Baker said of the Gulf War. "Look at the way [George H.W. Bush] ran that war. I mean, we not only did it, we said ‘Here's what we're going to do,' we got the rest of the world behind us, including Arab states, and we got somebody else to pay for it. Now tell me a better way, politically, diplomatically, and militarily, to fight a war."
Baker rejected, in detail, the four main criticisms neoconservatives both inside and outside the Romney campaign have made regarding Zoellick: that Zoellick is soft on China, insufficiently supportive of Israel, was weak on pressuring the Soviet Union toward the end of the Cold War, and that he didn't support the Gulf War.
Baker said the last charge was simply false. "He was never opposed to the Gulf War. In fact, he was one of my right-hand aides when we built that unprecedented international coalition to kick Iraq out of Kuwait," Baker said.
Regarding the end of the Cold War, Baker said Zoellick played a key role in the reunification of Germany and of Germany's subsequent admission into NATO.
"[Zoellick] wasn't the lead, but he was absolutely critical and instrumental in our getting German unification accomplished, and we did it over the objections of the Soviet Union," Baker said.
On China, Baker defended the George H.W. Bush administration's reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which has been widely criticized.
"The fact of the matter is that, when Tiananmen Square broke, we ended up sanctioning China in many, many ways," he said. "We didn't fire up the 101st Airborne, but we did put political and diplomatic and economic sanctions on China. But we kept the relationship going. Now, Bob Zoellick was a part of all that -- he wasn't the lead on it or anything, but he sure is not, as far as I can tell, soft on China."
Regarding Israel, Baker said that the first Bush administration admittedly had a rocky relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, though it had a better relationship with his successor Yitzhak Rabin. But good progress was made during that period, he said, even though the Bush administration often took stances on issues that the Israeli leaders didn't like, such as whether U.S. funds could be used to build settlements.
When Baker was secretary of state, the United States convinced Arab nations to sit face to face with the Israelis, got the United Nations to repeal the resolution that equated Zionism with racism, and facilitated the emigration of Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union, all by focusing on the U.S. interest in working with both sides toward peace, which has been a bipartisan and longstanding policy of many administrations over the years, he said.
Baker pointed to a recent New York Times column by Tom Friedman arguing that the most successful American leaders on the Middle East process were Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, and himself.
In any case, Baker said, Zoellick "wasn't involved extensively" in making policy toward Israel.
"He was not the lead guy. The lead guy there was Dennis Ross, and nobody ever accused Dennis Ross of being hard on Israel," Baker said.
Zoellick's outstanding qualifications for a leadership position in the Romney campaign or a future administration are his experience and competence, Baker said.
"The fact of the matter is that if the Romney campaign and the Romney administration employ somebody like Bob Zoellick, they're going to get somebody who's been there, who's done that, who understands how to make things work, and who understands how to get things done. And that's what we need, above all, in our leadership," he said.
The realist view practiced by Zoellick, Baker, and the elder Bush, of a pragmatic foreign policy that understands the limits of U.S. power and eschews costly and lengthy interventions in countries that aren't crucial to American interests, is even more relevant today, he argued.
For example, Baker doesn't agree with prominent neoconservatives that the United States should do more in Syria.
"Well, my view is that sooner or later, Assad is going to go. I don't think he can survive, and I think we ought to do everything we can -- politically, diplomatically, and economically -- to make that happen. I believe we are doing that. I think we ought to be very careful about the slippery slope of military intervention of any sort," he said. "The Syrian threat's not a threat to us."
Baker said that the United States can't allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, but argued that the military option should only be used as a last resort and that there is still time for diplomacy before military action would have to be considered.
"We ought to do everything we can, tighten these sanctions as tight as we can get them -- they're showing some indication of beginning to work. We ought to see if we can't get them to work better, keep doing that. We're not at a critical point yet," he said.
"Our biggest threat today isn't Syria, or even Iran, or Russia or China. Our biggest threat today is our own economy, and we cannot continue to be strong diplomatically, politically, and militarily and be weak economically," he added.
Baker also responded to Romney's claim in stump speeches that Baker had once claimed that Ronald Reagan told him to hold no national security meetings in his first 100 days of his presidency. In fact, Reagan had national security briefings every day and intermittent National Security Council meetings, Baker said.
"I think it was misunderstood a little bit. What I said was that we focused, with laser-like efficiency, on the economy, because we knew ... you see, we came in under similar circumstances that Obama came in, but he didn't focus on the economy the way we did," Baker said.
"By the beginning of the third year of Ronald Reagan's term, we were coming out really good, creating jobs, big economic growth, because we put in place pro-growth economic policy," he said. "Well, a part of the reason we were able to do that is that in fact we in the administration focused with laser-like effectiveness on our economic program. We weren't going to let anything get in the way of that, including conflict in Central America, which some people were suggesting we ought to deal with, and that sort of thing."
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America's lawmakers skipped town last week for a five-week recess, leaving several important national security agenda items on the table.
Most, if not all of them, are expected to be ignored until after the election, meaning it could be months before Congress takes action.
Some of the stalled agenda items could be tacked in the short September session, aides say, but most will be left until the lame-duck session in December. And depending on who wins the presidency and which party controls the Senate, several items could be scuttled from the congressional calendar all together.
Here are the top five foreign-policy issues Congress punted on before leaving Washington:
Russia trade and human rights
The House didn't even try to take up two time-sensitive Russia-related bills before leaving town: a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and a bill to sanction Russian human rights violators, named after dead Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
The trade bill is particularly time-sensitive because Russia is set to join the World Trade Organization later this month. Unless Congress grants Russia PNTR status, advocates of the bill warn, U.S. businesses won't be able to take advantage. House Republicans are leery of passing a bill that seems to some like a gift to Russia, although Democrats and the administration argue that the bill does more for the U.S. economy than it does for Russia.
The human rights bill, which would replace an antiquated 1974 law called Jackson-Vanik, is meant to be the sugar that makes the medicine go down sweet for Republicans. But due to GOP anger about Russian actions in Syria and the opposition of House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), House leaders are having trouble corralling the votes for the trade bill, even if the human rights bill is attached.
Look for the business community to ratchet up pressure on Congress to act on the trade bill throughout August. Senate aides, noting that the House must go first on the PNTR bill, predict that House leaders' interest in not offending the business community will trump the awkwardness of passing a trade bill with Russia just before the election. The Senate Finance and Foreign Relations Committees have already approved both bills, so if the House does its part, Senate passage is sure to follow.
One kink in the works could be that the House version of the Magnitsky bill applies only to Russia, whereas the Senate version was broadened to apply to human rights violators throughout the world. The administration supports the Senate version because it is less provocative to the Russians. But for House leaders like Ros-Lehtinen, that defeats the purpose.
National security nominations
The Senate managed to clear a bunch of national security nominations before leaving town, but left a few top jobs behind. Unless Congress acts in September, the United States will have no ambassador in Iraq or Pakistan until after the elections. If Mitt Romney wins in November, all U.S. ambassadors will be given their pink slips and replaced, so it may seem trivial to appoint envoys who might only serve a few months. But the situations in Iraq and Pakistan could not be more sensitive, and most experts agree that U.S. national security interests are harmed by not having an ambassador at the helm of those huge and important embassies.
For Iraq, the administration is not likely to nominate anyone before the election, having learned a brutal lesson when several GOP senators successfully worked to scuttle the confirmation of Obama's original choice for the post, former NSC staffer Brett McGurk. McGurk's nomination was dead in the water when his e-mail exchange with a reporter in Baghdad (who later became his wife) was made public, but senators expressed other concerns about his qualifications for the post as well.
Some in the State Department tell The Cable that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to appoint Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford to the post, but the White House doesn't want to take him off of the Syria account just yet. Other rumored candidates include the DCM in Baghdad Robert Beecroft and the current U.S. ambassador in Jordan Stu Jones. But there's no time to vet and confirm someone in the six legislative days in September, so the world's largest embassy will probably remain leaderless until 2013.
Obama's nominee to be envoy to Pakistan, Richard Olson, has a fair chance of getting confirmed in September. His nomination is currently held up by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who wants Pakistan to release the doctor who helped the CIA get Osama bin Laden. There's little chance the Pakistani courts will respond to Paul, so his hold will prove useless and will probably be lifted under pressure next month.
The Senate also failed to confirm Carlos Pasqual to be an assistant secretary of state in the energy bureau. That hold relates to congressional angst over the "Fast and Furious scandal," which unfolded while Pasqual was ambassador to Mexico. That issue isn't going away any time soon, so Pascqual will probably have to hold on to his "acting assistant secretary" title for a while.
Law of the Sea Treaty
Republicans senators boasted last month that they had collected enough votes to kill the Law of the Sea Treaty, an international convention that sets rules of the road for navigation, mineral, oil, and mining disputes in international waters. The drive to ratify the treaty is a major pet project of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), some say as a quasi-audition for the Secretary of State job. But the treaty remains opposed by entrenched senators in the GOP caucus, led by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who sees the treaty as yielding American sovereignty.
The Navy supports the treaty because it codifies international navigation practices it is already observing, and business leaders are pushing for ratification because they believe it gives them added leverage to bargain for rights to resources under the oceans. The plan had been to push for ratification in the lame-duck session, as was done in 2010 for the New START treaty with Russia. But this treaty is still a long way from being fully vetted, Republican opponents are confident they have enough votes to stop ratification, and the lame-duck session is already jammed full of urgent tax and economic bills. Moreover, if Democrats hold the Senate, Inhofe is likely to succeed Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, dealing LOST another perhaps fatal blow.
Defense and State Department authorizations
The defense authorization is the perennial and quintessential "must-pass" bill, as no Congress wants to stand accused of failing to support the troops during wartime, so there's a healthy confidence on Capitol Hill that the legislation will get done this calendar year. But the bill won't get done this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, because unlike most legislation these days, senators usually get to offer amendments to the defense authorization and thus the bill requires days of precious floor time. Last year, Congress cleared the bill in late December and that looks like the plan for this year as well.
The bill recommends but does not set funding levels for the military -- the money is actually allocated by the appropriations bill -- but there are still controversial issues in the authorization bill that will require attention. Last year's debate focused on the bill's language authorizing the president to indefinitely detain terror suspects, a fight that is still ongoing in the courts. Last year's bill also included new sanctions on Iran. This year, the fight will be over provisions of the version the House passed in May that provide for indefinite detention, reject some administration cuts to weapons programs, and seek to prevent same-sex marriage ceremonies in the military.
The impending cuts to both defense and entitlement spending mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 have become a hot-button issue in the presidential campaign. And we know what that means: no compromises before the election. For Republicans, the administration's reluctance to negotiate to avoid approximately $54 billion in cuts to the Pentagon's budget that are set to go into effect in January feeds into in their argument that the president is weak on national defense. Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the cuts can only be avoided if Republicans agree to increase revenues.
After the election, three possible scenarios will likely emerge. If Obama wins and the Democrats hold the Senate, they will be able to claim a mandate and popular support for a deal that includes revenues as well as spending cuts to avoid sequestration. If Romney wins, having promised to hold the line on cuts, the Senate will be hard pressed to implement the sequestration bargain no matter which party holds the gavel. If Obama wins and the Republicans take over the Senate, no deal is likely and the cuts could actually go into effect, beginning what would surely be a period of increased and even more acrimonious gridlock regarding national security on Capitol Hill.
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Pakistan watchers were scratching their heads Thursday night when the Senate failed to confirm President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next ambassador to Pakistan, Rick Olson. On Friday, The Cable confirmed that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) objected to the nomination, pushing off Olson's confirmation until at least September.
Two senior Senate aides close to the issue told The Cable that the nominations of both Olson and James Cunningham to be the next ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan, respectively, were at risk of not being included in the string of nominations confirmed by the Senate by unanimous consent late Thursday, just before senators adjourned for a five-week recess. The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, whose health is declining, intervened and made calls on behalf of Cunningham and Olson, but only Cunningham got confirmed.
Two GOP Senate aides said that some Senate Foreign Relations Committee members were upset that the Cunningham and Olson nominations were rushed through the process and they didn't have time to submit questions for the record and get answers. There was no SFRC business meeting on the nominations, and both were discharged from the committee and sent to the floor without the committee weighing in.
The concerns about Olson, who previously served as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, aren't personal, but committee members want more detail on the would-be envoy's proposed approach to the Haqqani network, the militant group that has been waging cross-border attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Olson promised to make the issue a priority at his July 31 confirmation hearing, but multiple senators want to use the opportunity to gauge if the administration plans to include the Haqqani network in any effort to negotiate an end to the Afghanistan war.
"Given the highly sensitive U.S.-Pakistan relationship, it is important to have a fully vetted ambassador. Both the White House and Chairman Kerry know this, and should have planned accordingly," one GOP senate aide said.
For Paul, his hold on the Olson nomination is part of his overall effort to pressure the Pakistani government to release Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to help positively identify Osama bin Laden. Afridi was sentenced in June to 33 years in jail for treason. Paul is not only holding up the confirmation of the U.S. ambassador, he is also threatening to force a vote to cut all U.S. aid to Pakistan over the issue, the aides said.
Paul's office did not respond to our request for comment, but The Cable caught up with the senator himself in the hallways of the Capitol Thursday. He said he had met with the State Department and with Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman, and told them that he will keep pressing the issue unless Afridi is released. Afridi's next hearing is Aug. 29.
Senate leadership is dead-set against letting Paul have a vote on his amendment, out of concern that senators won't want to publicly stand up in defense of sending more American taxpayer money to Pakistan. But Paul said he plans to use Senate Rule 14 to force a vote. It's not clear if this legislative tactic will work, but Paul is confident.
"We are still hopeful that Pakistan will relook at the evidence and decide that they don't want to hold him. If they do, we will probably not press for the vote. If they don't, I have 16 signatures to try to force a vote," Paul said. "It's not a guarantee I'll get a vote, but it's a guarantee I'll be a thorn in somebody's side."
It's doubtful that the Pakistanis will free Afridi to satisfy Paul, and senior senators lament the delay in Olson's confirmation.
"Democrats and Republicans always say that the key to Afghanistan is securing cooperation with Pakistan. That's reason enough to have a top-notch diplomat in place in Islamabad," Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable.
"This is a complicated relationship that demands constant attention. We've been working day and night with Pakistan to build a stable economy and strengthen our engagement with its people, and after such a tumultuous year, this is exactly the wrong time to leave such an important post vacant. I can't think of a good reason for doing so. We recognized the importance of this position and expedited it out of committee and I urge the Senate to move this nomination through as quickly as possible when we return from the recess."
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Olson is headed to Pakistan prior to his confirmation. In fact, he will not go to Pakistan until he is confirmed.
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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.
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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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