The Cable

Flournoy's Pentagon policy shop

Since her confirmation as under secretary of defense for policy last month, Michèle Flournoy - the highest-ranking woman in Pentagon civilian history -- has become one of the most active and influential national security figures in the Obama administration.

In one indication of her behind-the-scenes clout, Flournoy is currently with Vice President Joseph Biden on a trip to Brussels for meetings with NATO on the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review that she is helping lead. Her policy shop also delivered much of the heavy lifting that resulted in President Obama's recent announcement of a plan to withdraw all but 30,000-50,000 U.S. forces from Iraq by next summer. And soon, Flournoy will be taking charge of the Quadrennial Defense Review, a subject on which she has considerable expertise, given her past role in leading a QDR study group at the National Defense University.

Flournoy, who cofounded the Center for a New American Security and served in a principal deputy role in the Clinton-era Pentagon, is also staffing up her own policy shop. The White House has signaled its intent to nominate CNAS's vice president James N. Miller, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, to serve as principal deputy under secretary of defense, and Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson (USMC, ret.) as the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs (nomination hearings for both positions, which report to Flournoy, are still forthcoming). The White House has said it intends to keep Michael Vickers, the former CIA counterinsurgency strategist briefly depicted in Charlie Wilson's War, as assistant secretary of defense for low-intensity conflict.

But several other Senate-confirmable positions in Flournoy's policy shop remain to be filled. Among them, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and America's security affairs (previously held by Paul McHale, who has since departed); the assistant secretary of defense for global security affairs (whose portfolio has included partnership strategy, coalition affairs, counternarcotics, and POW and detainee affairs), currently held by Joseph Benkert, expected to depart when a successor is in place; and the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, previously held by the late Peter Rodman.

Alexander Vershbow, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, South Korea, and NATO, is expected to be nominated for the international security affairs post. Vershbow, who recently retired from the Foreign Service after completing his ambassadorship in Seoul, declined to comment.

Complicating matters in filling them, sources say, are two factors. First, Flournoy is thinking about restructuring some positions and portfolios. "She will be realigning some of the portfolios to better meet some of the president's objectives," a Pentagon spokesman told The Cable. "It's an ongoing process." Flournoy is thought to be thinking of changing the global security affairs assistant secretary job to include cyberspace and nuclear policy issues.

A second reason for delay, sources say, is that provisionally selected candidates for Senate-confirmable posts are undergoing intensified White House vetting, in the wake of administration trouble over several nominations. One source said that some would-be nominees have been asked to find receipts for trips taken years earlier, for instance, and thought it unclear whether some provisional candidates would endure the extended vetting process. 

Meantime, sources told The Cable that Major Gen. Paul Eaton (ret.) is among those discussing possible assistant secretary level jobs with Flournoy. Eaton was the first head of the U.S. training program for Iraqi troops and wrote a 2006 New York Times op-ed critical of then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Eaton declined to comment on his discussions.

The Cable

Kto Vinovat? Who's to blame? The "reset" mistranslation whodunit

When Hillary Clinton held her first meeting as secretary of state with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov Friday in Geneva, with an ambitious agenda of bilateral nuclear treaty renegotiations, a possible U.S. compromise on missile defense, and Russian arms sales to Iran, she sought a gesture to thaw the relationship between the two former Cold War adversaries that had grown increasingly chilly in recent years, particularly in the wake of Russia's invasion of Georgia last summer.

Reflecting the Obama administration's intent to "reset" relations with Moscow (a term first prominently used by Vice President Joseph Biden at the Munich security summit last month), Clinton gave Lavrov a mock "reset" button, with the Russian word peregruzka written on the side, as a kind of light-spirited gag gift. Problem was, as Lavrov and media reports subsequently noted, the translation was slightly off, and the button Clinton delivered actually translated to something closer to "overload," rather than perezagruzit, "to reset."


While the Russian foreign minister seemed to enjoy needling Clinton about the mistranslation, and the potentially awkward mistake did not seem to further imperil relations between Moscow and Washington, it's still worth asking: Who goofed? After all, in Russian, Kto vinovat? -- "Who's to blame?" -- has been, since Soviet times, the key question.

U.S. government officials were hesitant to point fingers, at least publicly. A State Department spokesman told The Cable he had no idea and had not heard anyone else ask the question, hinting perhaps that it was a story hardly worthy of pursuit.

Other State Department sources insisted that Foggy Bottom's area specialists and premier Russian speakers -- among them Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns, who was in Moscow last month, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried, and his deputy Ian Kelly, were not the culprits.

Pressed, State Department sources suggested it might have been a communications staffer in the secretary's office. "But [Clinton] was amused and not annoyed," one source stressed.

One former senior official said he questioned whether the gag gift, even had it been properly translated, was appropriate. "It's a pretty important relationship. This risked having it become an attention grabber. They might have been more serious about it."

But others said to lighten up.

"Not sure where the translation came from, but the fact is we screwed up in not catching it before meeting," said one senior U.S. government official. "I guess that's one of perils of gag gifts. Anyway -- we made a mistake, no excuses."

"All taken in good humor by both Clinton and Lavrov," he added.  The "meeting itself was one of more productive I've seen in recent years."