The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Clinton to Latin America, Gitmo, Haiti, Quartet, Karzai

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. Here are the highlights of Wednesday's briefing by spokesman P.J. Crowley:

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will leave Sunday for a tour of Latin America that will include the countries of Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. She will attend the inauguration of President Jose Mujica in Uruguay on Monday, then meet with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and President-elect Sebastian Piñera. Next Wednesday, she will meet with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula and Foreign Minister Celso Amorim. In Costa Rica next Thursday she'll be in Costa Rica to speak at the Americas Ministerial Meeting and will meet separately with President Oscar Arias and President-elect Laura Chinchilla. And in Guatemala, she'll meet with President Alvaro Colom and have a meeting with leaders of Central American countries and the Dominican Republic.
  • "I'm on my way to Latin America next week. And Iran is at the top of my agenda," Clinton told the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee Wednesday.
  • One prisoner from Guantanamo Bay was transferred to Spain and three were transferred to Albanian. "We are grateful to both nations and their governments for their willingness to support U.S. efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay," Crowley said. The prisoner that went to Spain is Palestinian. The three prisoners that went to Albania are natives of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. There are now 188 detainees remaining at Guantanamo.
  • Ambassador Steve Bosworth met Wednesday in Beijing with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei today on North Korea and his delegation will go to Seoul on Thursday. "I'm confident at some point we'll have a resumption of talks," Bosworth reportedly said there. "I think that's remains a question to basically ask North Korea," was Crowley's remark.
  • Six Haiti orphans who were held up from leaving there because of fears they were being kidnapped finally made it to the U.S. To meet their adoptive parents. "There are still a couple of hundred kids in the pipeline that we continue to work with the Government of Haiti, and obviously officials here in this country, to process them and bring them here to the United States," Crowley said.
  • There could be a meeting of the Middle East Quartet in March, but nothing is ready to announce, Crowley said. That didn't stop Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov from announcing that the meeting will be held March 19 in Moscow.
  • Regarding Afghan President Hamid Karzai's decision to take total control of his country's Electoral Complaints Commission by declaring his right to appoint all the members, Crowley said that was within his presidential power. "It will be very important for the government to be transparent and credible and name appropriate officials to these posts that will give the Afghan people confidence that future elections will be free, fair, and legitimate," Crowley added.

The Cable

No "New START" in 2010, Hill sources predict

There's a growing realization on Capitol Hill that Senate ratification of the START follow-on treaty with Russia will probably not happen this year.

One problem, of course, is that there is no agreement as yet to ratify. President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reportedly talked over the phone Wednesday and agreed to speed up the final phase of the negotiations, which have lagged since the old START treaty expired last December. The outstanding issues have included how to deal with Russian concerns over U.S. missile defense plans and Russian demands for access to American missile defense telemetry.

But even if the treaty were signed soon (which nobody is predicting), the huge demand for time it would take for the Senate to scrutinize and then ratify the agreement makes a ratification on the U.S. side unlikely in 2010, multiple Hill sources said. The process would take at least six months and everybody knows the Senate shuts down in August of any election year.

That's also assuming leading Republicans don't throw additional roadblocks in the way of the treaty as part of their drive to thwart any Obama success or bargain for new nuclear warheads. Senior Democratic senators have said very recently that ratification on its face could be very problematic.

Here's how the ratification process would go. After the two presidents sign the deal, the administration would be tasked with preparing reams of supporting documents, annexes, explainers, and other supplementary materials. All of those would be sent to the Hill for members and staffers to pour over.

The relevant congressional committees then have to prepare reports of their own outlining their take on the treaty. That process would also likely involve a back and forth with the administration to get clarifications on specific provisions. The administration might have to work with the Russians to make sure their clarifications are mutually acceptable. That could take time.

Then, the committees have to schedule and hold hearings, both the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. Other committees dealing with nuclear issues or oversight of national security might also want to weigh in. All of those committees have tight schedules as they deal with a litany of important issues under their purview.

After the hearings, members and offices have another round of questions and clarifications. And if all that goes well, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, can then set aside precious floor time for a debate and vote on the treaty. There could even be amendments...

It's not clear whether leading GOP senators like Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ, will complicate the timeline further by moving to stall the new treaty or jam it up altogether. Kyl is bargaining for a more firm provision to build new warheads as part of the administration's "stockpile management plan." He has also promised to oppose the treaty if he thinks it imposes on U.S. missile defense options.

So what does this mean for the rest of the administration's arms control agenda? Probably a delay until next year for a push to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as well. That agreement has even less chance than the START follow-on of garnering Republican support.

"In the end, Kyl isn't so much opposed to START, but he is really opposed to CTBT," one Hill aide said.

For its part, the Russian Duma is expected to ratify the treaty whenever the Russian government tells it to.

UPDATE: A White House official confirms late Wednesday that, "The two Presidents spoke earlier today and agreed to urge their negotiators to conclude a post-START treaty."

UPDATE #2: A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, adds, "Senator Reid has long been expecting to receive and consider the START treaty during the 2010 calendar year. We have seen nothing to this point that would alter this expectation.  Arms control treaties have always been handled in a bipartisan manner and, once the Senate receives all the details on this particular treaty, Senator Reid is confident this tradition, which is critical to our national security, will continue."