The Cable

30 hours of Brownback v. Hill?

It could be a good night for pizza delivery at the Capitol.

With a cloture vote expected possibly later tonight on the nomination of Chris Hill to be U.S. ambassador to Iraq, an aide to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) says the Kansas Republican plans to use all 30 hours of debate time allotted to describe his objections to Hill's confirmation. Sen. Brownback won't yield a single minute, the aide says, unless the Senate agrees to debate Brownback's proposal for sanctions against North Korea.

Brownback was among a group of Republican Senators who wrote President Obama last month to voice their objections to Hill, the outgoing assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and the former Bush administration's envoy to the Six Party talks on North Korea. "We found aspects of Ambassador Hill's most recent work in the Six Party Talks for North Korean nuclear disarmament to be deeply troubling," Brownback, Sen. Kit Bond (R-KS), Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) wrote. "Whatever one thinks about the overall thrust of the Bush administration's North Korea policy, Ambassador Hill engaged in evasive and unprofessional activities, including sidelining key officials at the State Department and breaking commitments made for the record before congressional committees."

Some Democratic foreign policy hands said the conservative Republicans may be taking revenge for Congressional Democrats' past refusal to confirm Bush's pick to be ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, who happens to be a particular antagonist of Hill's diplomatic approach to the North Korea nuclear challenge.

But a Democratic Senate foreign policy aide disagreed. "This is all about Brownback's personal pique at Hill for what Brownback views was a flawed North Korea policy at the end of the Bush administration."

He suggested that Brownback may be doing this to energize his bid for Kansas Governor in 2010, "especially the need to energize evangelicals concerned over North Korean human rights abuses."

"Not at all," said Brian Hart, a spokesman for Brownback. "There's not enough of a Korean community in Kansas to make that sort of impact."

Whatever the case, the Democratic Senate aide continued, "At a time when we are facing an economic meltdown, a housing collapse, a healthcare crisis, etc., it is incredibly selfish of Brownback to be taking 30 hours of time on the Senate floor to debate a nomination everyone knows will be overwhelmingly confirmed."

The Cable previously reported that the military top brass were eager to get Hill into place in Baghdad, so they could get some help. "It is key that an ambassador arrives to help address important policy issues and begins interfacing with the senior leaders of the Government of Iraq," a spokesman for Gen. Raymond Odierno said.

Previous opposition to the Hill nomination from Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has seemingly subsided.

Brownback doesn't seem to mind having the spotlight all to himself. Aides also pointed to this Youtube video of Brownback's floor speech against Hill before the Easter recess.

The Cable

Syria on the Potomac

It's not quite the same thing as returning a U.S. ambassador to Damascus. But the Obama administration is sending a delegation to Syrian National Day celebrations to be held tonight at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

It's the first time the U.S. government has sent officials to grace the event in six years. The top U.S. diplomat attending tonight's festivities is Obama's recently nominated assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, Amb. Jeffrey Feltman, along with other less senior officials. 

The Lebanese embassy received an invitation to the event as well, if only yesterday, a Washington Middle East hand heard.

Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, the NSC senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, met with Syrian foreign ministry officials in Damascus last month.

But the Obama administration appears to be proceeding cautiously and without great haste towards greater engagement with Damascus.

"They are going extremely slowly -- and with good reason," said David Schenker, a former Pentagon Syria and Lebanon analyst now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Schenker said the Obama administration made a few under-the-radar gestures toward Syria early in the term -- allowing the sale of spare parts of 747s that had previously been banned under the Syria Accountability Act, and permitting money transfers to a Syrian children's cancer charity affiliated with the wife of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.

Among signs of reciprocity the United States has observed from Syria to date: better diplomatic access for U.S. embassy staff and visitors, the reopening of the American Language Center, initial help toward acquiring property to build a new embassy, and a general change of tone about the U.S.

One reason for the go-slow approach may be to avoid doing anything that might complicate the upcoming Lebanese elections, which are being held on June 7. 

The Syrian and Lebanese governments have recently opened embassies in each others' countries. But relations are still exceedingly delicate, and Syrian influence in Lebanese politics remains a major concern.

"Everyone in Lebanon, or rooting for one or another Lebanese team from the sidelines, has called for there to be 'no foreign interference in the elections,'" said Benjamin Ryan of the Aspen Institute U.S.-Lebanon Dialogue. "The U.S. concerns vis a vis Syria and Iran going in to the elections are the potential for physical intimidation, violence, or even assassinations - all tactics that have been employed against anti-Syrian or pro-Western groups in the past. Whether because of the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement or the slow detente between the U.S. and Iran, it looks now like things will go relatively smoothly."

For now, tonight's gesture continues the Obama administration's efforts to show a greater willingness to engage with Damascus, if cautiously and with its eyes open.