The Cable

UPDATED: Levin lifts hold on State Near East official, bureau makes senior appointments

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) lifted his hold today on the confirmation of Jeffrey Feltman to be assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, a Levin staffer tells Foreign Policy. The move clears Feltman to be confirmed by the Senate by unanimous consent, perhaps even as early as tonight, a Hill foreign policy aide said, adding he doubted there would be a need for a roll-call vote.

As previously reported, Levin had been exercising the hold on the senior Near East appointment to pressure the administration to make eligible for Libyan relief compensation funds an Italian-born constituent who had been wounded in a 1985 terrorist attack on Rome's airport. Feltman, who has recused himself from the case, has declined to comment.

Meantime, sources say, Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma has gone to Levin with two offers in the past month trying to resolve the issue. The Michigan Democrat apparently didn't find either offer satisfactory, while word from State after the second go-round was that Levin had "raised the bar."

Levin's office declined to say how the matter was resolved today. Earlier Thursday, it had declined to comment on the matter. Verma has not responded to queries.

Last year, Levin had received a letter from a former top Bush administration State Department official that would have met his requirements, a Washington Middle East hand previously explained on condition of anonymity, but had been unable to get the U.S. government to follow through on whatever that letter promised regarding extending eligibility for Libya relief funds for his constituent.

Feltman, a well-liked career foreign service officer and former ambassador to Lebanon who assumed the role of acting head of the NEA bureau after the retirement of David Welch last December, has had some other unreported good news of late.

He was finally able earlier this month to make senior hires in the bureau.  Among the most senior NEA appointments, Ronald L. Schlicher, a former ambassador to Cyprus and consul general in Jerusalem, came on as Feltman's PDAS on July 20. Schlicher oversees all the other DASes in the bureau, and has "executive section" authorities to make decisions on IT, budgets, personnel, human resources, funding and staffing. The State Department's Iran office, directed by Todd Schwartz, also reports to Schlicher.

Bureau DAS appointments that were finalized in the past couple weeks: Janet Sanderson, a former U.S. ambassador to Haiti and deputy chief of mission in Amman, became the DAS for the Maghreb and Arab Peninsula earlier this week. Michael Corbin, a former US charge d'affaires in Damascus and official in Iraq, became the new DAS for Iraq.  Maura Connelly came on July 13 as the DAS for Israel, Palestine, Egypt and the Levant. Madeleine Spirnak continues to serve as the acting DAS for public diplomacy and the Middle East Partnership Initiative.

The Cable previously reported that the Brookings Institution's Tamara Cofman Wittes is a candidate to become the DAS for Middle East democracy/Arab reform issues. (Wittes, who previously declined to comment, couldn't be reached Thursday.)

"Every bureau has a set number of DAS slots, some Foreign Service, some Civil Service (in regional bureaus like NEA, most are Foreign Service)," a State Department official explained. "A few are Schedule C (political appointees).  Each bureau has the right to fill those jobs as it sees fit, once the candidate is approved by a senior personnel review committee.  A Senate hold wouldn't necessarily hold up that process." 

One source speaking not for attribution said a new senior NEA official had recently remarked that he did not know how Feltman had managed to run the bureau (which after all counts in its map Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Libya among a few warm spots) without getting his team in place for this long - almost eight months. Feltman, currently attending a Centcom conference, also recently lost a day sitting through jury selection (he wasn't ultimately picked), a department hand said.

The hold on Feltman's confirmation became an issue at the State Department press briefing yesterday. Asked by a reporter if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had spoken to her former Senate colleague on the matter, spokesman Ian Kelly said, "Well, of course, we're all looking forward to having Jeff become the confirmed assistant secretary.  There's a lot of important diplomatic activity under his purview in North Africa and the Middle East.  I know the Secretary is eager to have him come on board as a full-fledged assistant secretary, but I don't think I'm prepared to talk about what exactly she's done with Congress."

Later on, a reporter opined to Kelly, this is "a political holdup by a member of Congress because of an issue that has nothing to do with his nomination," before throwing in a question, "What can you do about it to end the standoff?"

UPDATE: Word from a Hill staffer Friday afternoon: "The Senate didn't move [Feltman] this week.  One reason....Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ)."

The Cable

Holbrooke: I've changed Bush's failed Afghan drug policy

In a press briefing yesterday, U.S. Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke, back Tuesday from a trip to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Brussels, noted that he had torn up the Bush administration's playbook on drug eradication in Afghanistan, tossing out previous efforts at eradication of opium poppy crops, in favor of focusing on interdiction at the production and market/distribution levels:

One of the most interesting things I saw on the trip down in Helmand and Kandahar was the first tangible evidence that one of the most important policy shifts of the United States since January 20th is beginning to show results. As you know because we've announced it several times, and it finally got picked up about the fourth or fifth time we said it, ironically, when I was in Trieste, not here in Washington, we have phased - we are phasing out crop eradication. The United States and the ISAF forces are not going to go around assisting or participating in the destruction of poppy fields anymore. The United States has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars doing this. A per-hectare cost has been estimated at $44,000 a hectare to destroy the poppy seeds. You can buy real estate for that in most of the - in many places. [...]

All we did was alienate poppy farmers who were poor farmers, who were growing the best cash crop they could grow in a market where they couldn't get other things to market, and we were driving people into the hands of the Taliban.

Now, this flies in the face of a lot of conventional drug enforcement doctrine. Why did - why was it wrong? Because in other countries - Mexico, Colombia, the Golden Triangle in Thailand - that was the purpose of our policy. Here, of course, our policy is to strengthen the government and help defeat the Taliban, and we were not doing it. And the amount of hectarage we were destroying was inconsequential and the amount of money we were denying the Taliban was zero. They got everything they needed anyway.

So after consulting a lot of experts, we - and having an internal debate in the U.S. Government, because a lot of people were doctrinally addicted, if you'll pardon the pun, to that concept - we did this. And then we started out - and we said, okay, no more crop eradication, we'll phase that out, we will increase our efforts in interdiction, and third, we're going to increase agriculture.

On this trip, we saw the first indications that it might work. And those indications came from the British and American forces in Helmand, where they targeted interdiction and made interdiction their goal and they went after drug dealers. And using modern technologies, they located what they called drug bazaars, marketplaces which sold drug paraphernalia, precursor chemicals, laboratory equipment, poppy seeds and there were vast amounts of opium, nice fluffy poppy, to buy and sell, and they destroyed them.

 

Agriculture accounts for 80% of the economy of Afghanistan, Holbrooke said, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would be heading to Afghanistan in the fall. Holbrooke also said that recently confirmed State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh had accompanied him to Afghanistan and stayed on to examine the situation at the Bagram detention facility.

U.S. policy is focused obviously in the near term on ensuring Afghanistan has a fair presidential elections next month, after which U.S. policy to Afghanistan is expected to again come under review. "It's absolutely essential that over time Afghanistan assume responsibility for its own security and combat troops draw down," Holbrooke said. "Of course, economic assistance, training, advisory work will continue for quite a while. The current force levels of police and army are clearly going to have to be increased."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met yesterday with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, where Afghanistan was a chief topic of the discussions, as British appetite for staying in Afghanistan dwindles.

Middle East Peace Update: There was "progress ... but no breakthrough," in U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell's talks this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in a Wednesday press briefing:

QUESTION: Mitchell - Mitchell - what kind of progress he has made? Do you have anything? [...]

MR. KELLY: [Mitchell] met yesterday with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I understand that it was a positive and constructive - they had positive and constructive talks. The day before yesterday, Mitchell met with [Palestinian] Prime Minister Fayyad and with President Abbas, the Palestinian Authority officials.

QUESTION: Did the Israeli agree to stop the settlements or --

MR. KELLY: Well, I think - as I say, I think that both sides felt that there was progress made, but that - no breakthrough. But we look forward to continuing this process.

Mitchell was in Bahrain Wednesday.

Elsewhere: TNR's Michael Crowley looks at who's making foreign policy in the Obama administration, and concludes it's Obama.

On the Foreign Policy home page, Trita Parsi makes the case for a tactical pause with Iran.

Politico's Ben Smith investigates what's up with Vice President Joseph Biden's official photograph.

PHOTO: FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images