The Cable

Obama's Asia trip itinerary revealed

President Obama will travel to Indonesia and Australia next week in a delayed, but nonetheless important trip to the country with the world's largest Muslim population and a key American ally facing increased pressure by the United States' top regional competitor, China.

"In many ways, America has been somewhat absent from the region over the last several years and we are committed to restoring that leadership," said National Security Council communications director Ben Rhodes, who called the trip an "important opportunity to advance American interests in this vitally important part of the world."

Leaving Sunday, Obama will first travel to Guam, arriving Monday, March 22. That evening, Guam time, Obama will host a public event to speak to military personnel and the community in Guam, an unincorporated U.S. territory.

Then on Tuesday, March 23, the White House team will move on to Indonesia. After an arrival ceremony, Obama will hold a bilateral meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, after which the two leaders will hold a joint press conference. Obama will be the guest at a state dinner Tuesday night in Jakarta.

The visit will give Obama the opportunity to update the world on his drive to establish a new U.S. relationship with the Muslim world as he promised last June in Cairo, which was the last time he gave a speech in a Muslim-majority country.

"We're looking to advance in specific our partnership to facilitate the president's efforts to build a new beginning with Muslims around the world," said Rhodes.

On Wednesday, March 24, Obama will give a speech to discuss the "comprehensive partnership" between the United States and Indonesia, the details of which will be announced at the time. Climate change will definitely be discussed, seeing as how Indonesia is the world's fourth-largest emitter, said Rhodes.

Other than that, not much concrete policy news is expected.

"The highlights are pretty thin, to be honest," said Bush-era NSC Senior Asia Director Mike Green about the U.S.-Indonesia partnership. "I think one of the deep concerns in the administration is that they're going on this trip and they don't have a lot of deliverables."

The administration is still trying to convince Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, to remove his objections to increased military-to-military cooperation with Indonesia, Green said. Leahy doesn't want to aid the Kopassus group, an special forces unit of the Indonesian military that stands accused of human rights violations.

On Thursday, March 25, Obama will host a civil society event in Bali. The popular resort destination was chosen because it hosts the Bali Democracy Forum and gives Obama the chance to meet with civil society leaders and highlight their role in building democracy. Later that day, the team will head east to Canberra for dinner with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

On Friday, March 26, Obama will meet with Governor General Quentin Bryce (the Australian representative of the British monarchy), and have a bilateral meeting with Rudd, followed by another joint press conference. The team will leave Friday night to return to Washington.

Trade will be near the top of Obama's agenda in Australia, according to NSC Senior Asia Director Jeffrey Bader. The first negotiating meetings for the Trans Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-proposed trading bloc that would include Australia, are in Melbourne this week, and the president wants to move "rapidly" toward a consensus on that, Bader said.

"There are obstacles to trade. We need to do better; we need to talk with the Indonesians about that," Bader said.

"In both countries, we'll be looking to highlight the export potential of the United States," added Rhodes.

Some see the trip as a pivot after a rocky year of trying to set U.S.-China relations on course.

"The first year, the focus was on China," said former NSC Asia Director Victor Cha. "As the president said in the speech in Japan in November, China was central to the U.S. global agenda.  It was really all-out engagement.  And that kind of didn't work out very well."

"So that was Year One and, sort of, Year Two now is the do-over year," said Cha. "They're trying it a different way."

The Cable

What Clinton asked Netanyahu

As Washington came back to work Monday, the biggest question in town was: What did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demand from Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in their contentious Friday phone call?

The White House decided to publicly shame Netanyahu by getting him on the phone with Clinton Friday morning and then announcing the harshness of the secretary's message at the State Department's afternoon press conference. Clinton, in what some see as the administration's desire to get the most out of the situation,  gave Netanyahu a list of specific things the administration wants him to do to make up for what the White House  says was an "insult" in announcing new settlements during Vice President Joseph Biden's visit.

"She did outline for Prime Minister Netanyahu some specific things that we wanted to see from the Israeli government," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Monday. "They involve not only specifics about the project in question ... but more so about the willingness of the parties to engage seriously in this process ... and be willing to address the core issues at the heart of the peace process."

The most detailed account of what exactly Clinton demanded of Netanyahu was outlined in this Haaretz report, but two State Department officials tell The Cable that the Israeli newspaper got it partially wrong.

The Haaretz story said that Clinton asked for at least four specific things: an investigation of how the settlement announcement happened, a public reversal of that decision, a "substantial gesture" toward the Palestinians such as a prisoner release, and an "official declaration" that the indirect talks that U.S. envoy George Mitchell is trying to get started this week will deal with all the core issues in the conflict.

"Some of it is right and some of it is wrong," said one State Department official about the report, speaking on background basis, reflecting a concerted effort throughout the administration to keep the specifics of the demands quiet.

One official told The Cable that the specific issue that caused the row, Israel's announcement that it would construct 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, would have to be addressed in order to make things right with the White House.

A demand for an investigation of the announcement is somewhat moot because Netanyahu has already announced one. An official commitment by the Israelis to put all final settlement issues on the table now, which Crowley's comments seemed to confirm, is seen as extremely unlikely given Netanyahu's domestic political constraints.

A different State Department official, also speaking on background basis, acknowledged that Clinton had given Netanyahu several different options for building Palestinian confidence in indirect talks that would clearly show "the level of commitment that they [the Israelis] have to the peace process."

Crowley said the State Department was still waiting for a "formal response" to Clinton's demands, which could come today or tomorrow. He dismissed reports that Israel had already decided not to reverse the settlement decision and reiterated that the State Department was still awaiting an official response.

Crowley also brought up the issue of Palestinian complaints regarding the rededication of a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's old city and said the State Department has been in contact with Palestinian officials to tell them to ease off.

"We are deeply disturbed by statements made by several Palestinian officials that mischaracterize the event in question, which can only serve to heighten the tensions that we see. We call upon Palestinian officials to put an end to such incitement," said Crowley, denying he was trying to spread the criticism around in order to dial back the tone of the American attitude.

Mitchell is still planning to leave Washington tonight to return to the region, but Crowley described the plans as "fluid" and suggested that Mitchell could decide to go straight through to Moscow for the Quartet meeting if he didn't like what he was hearing.

"Can I tell you he's going to go tonight? Probably," one State Department official said. "Can I construct a scenario by which he might not go tonight? Sure."

Some insiders fear that asking Netanyahu for things that he might not be able to deliver, the administration is actually making a return to talks more difficult than it has to be. For example, it's not clear that Netanyahu is in a position to unilaterally reverse the settlement announcement.

More importantly, the tenuous trust between Netanyahu and the White House is more strained now, a diplomatic source said, wondering aloud why Netanyahu would be reassured that if he did walk back the settlements announcement that would be the end of the kerfluffle.

"By setting down a public marker in this way, out beyond what can be expected from any Israeli government, we are literally repeating the mistakes the administration made in the spring and has yet to recover from," said one Middle East hand. "If the administration wants Israel to trust them, and hopes they will discuss substance in indirect talks, this is the absolute opposite of an ideal approach."

Republican lawmakers are also admonishing the White House for taking such a public stance.

"The administration's decision to escalate its rhetoric following Vice President Biden's visit to Israel is not merely irresponsible, it is an affront to the values and foundation of our long-term relationship with a close friend and ally," read a statement by House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-OH. Similar statements have been issued by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, and others.

What's clear is that Clinton's demands to Netanyahu, as well as the public announcement of their phone call, were carefully coordinated between officials at the State Department and the White House, who are closely aligned on the strategy.

"The secretary of state specifically discussed her upcoming call with Prime Minister Netanyahu in her weekly meeting with the president yesterday and the message that would be delivered," a White House official told The Cable Friday. "We also coordinated between State and the White House how the call would be read out."

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