The Cable

Administration sending big names to Asia forum

The Obama administration is mounting a high-profile effort to bring senior officials to Singapore for the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum beginning next week, but struggling with how much substance they will need to deliver in addition to the pageantry.

During the Bush administration, the countries of East and Southeast Asia sought American attention but often felt the Bush focus on the war on terror crowded their issues off the White House's priority list.

The Obama administration has been working furiously to reverse that impression and the APEC forum will represent the largest display of those efforts yet.

The president, four cabinet-rank officials, dozens of appointee level bureaucrats, and maybe even a few Congressmen will attend the multi-faceted session. But already, administration officials are warning that the event might not produce any actual tangible progress on issues prized by those countries, most importantly on the issue of trade.

"APEC is a non- binding, voluntary organization that operates on consensus," the State Department's Korea desk chief Kurt Tong said Tuesday, "There are real benefits to that, in the ability then to set the agenda within APEC... On the other hand, it doesn't often result in legally binding commitments in and of themselves; but rather, decisions to then take back the outcomes of APEC and implement them on a sustained and voluntary basis."

Tong laid out a number of broad themes for this year's conference: Economic recovery, "resisting protectionism," regional economic integration, as well as balanced and sustainable growth. But his message was clear: the increased U.S. attention and presence at the conference is what the administration wants to focus on and wants credit for.

"That's certainly the perception which we wish to convey," Tong said, "It's really quite a concerted and very enthusiastic embrace of the APEC meetings and APEC as an institution by the United States, as evidenced by that participation," he said.

Top Obama officials who will be attending different part of the conference, in addition to the Obama himself, are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

Although the Bush administration's delegation to last year's APEC Forum in Peru was large, in addition to the president, Condoleezza Rice was the only cabinet official to attend.

But while Southeast Asia experts give the Obama team credit for improving the optics of U.S. involvement in the region, they warn that the countries of the region will be satisfied with that for only so long before wanting to see the new American government put its money where its mouth is.

"The Obama administration gets very high marks on form and being there, which counts for a lot in Asia," said Ernie Bower, the newly minted senior advisor and Southeast Asia program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "But the wheel is about to turn, and eventually you've got to have substance behind this."

The two main things regional actors are waiting for Obama to start moving on are the idea of a free trade area for the Asia-Pacific region and commitment to finalize the stalled Doha round of World Trade Organization talks.

In both cases, the administration is debating its strategy internally now, but faces problems selling the ideas in Congress and a lack of political capital to spend on trade in the face of an already crowded and ambitious domestic agenda.

"The message to Asia is: We're here, the substance is coming, but please hold on, we have things to do at home first," Bower said.

There is at least a feeling that the conference itself could shake out some movement from the Obama administration on trade. Singapore, the host of the conference, is particularly dependent on trade and therefore is seen as needing some concession from the U.S. on that front.

One area where progress could be demonstrated would be some U.S. commitment to the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP). The TPP is seen as a "coalition of the willing" on trade cooperation and a lighter, a less restrictive way to advance cooperative trade that could eventually evolve into an FTA.

The other main event in Singapore for U.S. foreign policy watchers will be the side meeting between all ten countries in the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which will for the first time include senior Burmese and American leaders in the same room.

ASEAN has been pushing for an annual meeting with the U.S., as they already have with China, but the U.S. hasn't yet agreed to that. But a big part of the Obama administration's engagement strategy in the region is a recognition that China's charm offensive has made great strides over the last decade.

"The Bush administration was not able to put the needed investment in Southeast Asia, which provided a historic opportunity for China to really step up its game," said Bower, "If the Americans want to play, we're going to have make a significant commitment to ASEAN."

The Cable

Exclusive: Did the U.S. government buy favorable coverage of Iraq’s Anbar Province?

U.S. taxpayer money that was supposed to be used for emergency purposes in Iraq was spent to buy a special advertising issue for an Anbar businessman in a British trade magazine, a U.S. government investigation has found.

FDI magazine, a bimonthly print publication and website owned by the Financial Times, nearly simultaneously showered Anbar Governor Qasim Abid Muhammad Hammadi Al Fahadawi with positive coverage, praising the dangerous Anbar province as "a hot place to invest in" and giving the businessman an award as "Global Personality of the Year for 2009."

FDI's award was announced three days before the "Special Report" on Anbar, entitled, "Bridge to the Future," was published on its website. The award was immediately praised by the U.S. military in Iraq, without mention of the U.S. funds spent on the supplement, and the website makes no mention of it having been paid for by the American government. Then again last month, FDI magazine Editor Courtney Fingar handed the governor another award naming Anbar province one of FDI magazine's "standout regions of the year."

Reached by The Cable, Fingar confirmed the U.S. government had spent "in the neighborhood of $50,000" on the special supplement but denied her magazine's content had been bought and paid for, calling the report on Anbar "balanced and accurate."

The investigation was disclosed in the October quarterly report of the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR), which is tasked with monitoring U.S. expenditures and projects in Iraq, but has so far not been publicly reported. Sources told The Cable that after the report is submitted to Congress, it's up to that body to determine if the payment violated funding rules or the law.

The 14-page special advertising edition, the SIGIR report found, was completely paid for by U.S. military money from what's called the Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP).

"CERP was originally designed for urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction," said Deputy Inspector General Ginger Cruz told The Cable. "Over the past six years its use has been greatly expanded and expenditures such as promotional media pieces emphasize the importance of having clear criteria to ensure appropriate use of taxpayer dollars."

"It just seems odd at all parts from whatever angle you look at it," said one administration source who requested anonymity because of the sensitive relationship between SIGIR and the military. Another source called the use of emergency funding to advertize for the governor "bizarre."

Defense Department financial regulations define CERP funding as "designed to enable local commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan to respond to urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction requirements within their areas of responsibility by carrying out programs that will immediately assist the indigenous population."

Fingar told The Cable that that while "travelling to Anbar to write the supplement provided an opportunity to become aware of the developments in the province and the work of the Governor," the editorial credibility of the publication was not for sale.

"The decision to grant the award was made after my return from Anbar, based on my experiences there and without consultation with the U.S. government, Anbar governor or any external sources," she said, "The decision is an editorial one alone."

She admitted that the special edition of the publication was paid for by the U.S. government and claimed it had a clearly identified sponsor, but the website version of the supplement made no mention the U.S. government involvement.

"As per standard practice in the [business to business] specialist publishing business, the cost of the report was underwritten by a clearly identified sponsor -- in this case the US government -- but as per the very strict editorial code of conduct under which we operate at The Financial Times Ltd, reporting and editing were carried out independently and with no interference," said Fingar, who described her reporting as "balanced and accurate.'

"We stand by our coverage," she said.

The Defense Department did not respond to requests for comment.