The Cable

Republican senators threaten to block Ford nomination

Twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday to let her know they intend to block the nomination of Robert Ford, whom President Obama has named to become the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years.

In the letter (pdf), 12 Republican senators, any one of whom could hold up the Ford nomination, said they weren't satisfied with the State Department's latest attempt to alleviate their concerns about sending an envoy to Damascus amid allegations that the Syrian government may have sent Scud missiles to the terrorist group Hezbollah.

The senators aren't buying State's argument that sending an ambassador to Syria is not a reward, but rather a smart way to engage and perhaps even persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop taking provocative actions.

"If engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior," the letter reads.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said recently that "Syria and Iran are providing Hezbollah with rockets and missiles of ever-increasing capability," but did not confirm that Syria had sent Scuds to the Lebanese militant group.

Not only have U.S. officials said they aren't sure whether Syria actually did make such a transfer (nor has the Israeli government presented evidence to back up its allegations, which Syria denies) but the administration contends that the lack of a U.S. ambassador is actually making it very difficult to talk to Assad on a daily basis. A recent State Department inspector general's report found that the embassy isn't getting much face time with senior Syrian officials.

High-level visits, such as the recent ones by Undersecretary Bill Burns and Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman, are actually more of a reward, administration officials say, because they always make news. An ambassador can do the quiet unglamorous diplomacy that's called for in Damascus, they argue, without the fanfare.

The GOP senators don't see it that way, however, and won't budge until State tells them what "new sanctions" it will place on Syria, or alternatively, when the deadline for engagement to show results will be.  They also want State to send over congressionally mandated reports on sanctions that State has simply never completed.

Indicating some pique that Clinton didn't respond to their last letter on this subject, they write tersely, "We would appreciate a response from you personally." The department's previous response came from Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma.

Meanwhile, Ford languishes at home, having given up his previous gig at the Baghdad Embassy but unable to start something new while this drama plays out.


The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Iran, Iran, Iran

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

  • Crowley added his own lukewarm response to the White House's disapproving statement about Iran's deal with Turkey and Brazil to ship some uranium stores to Turkey in exchange for higher-enriched uranium. "The United States continues to have concerns about the arrangement. The joint declaration does not address core concerns of the international community," Crowley said, "Iran remains in defiance of five U.N. Security Council resolutions, including its unwillingness to suspend enrichment operations."
  • A lot of questions still need to be answered and the U.S. push for sanctions will continue, Crowley said. Also, if Iran is getting uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor, why does it still need to continue up to 20 percent enrichment, Crowley wondered aloud. "Public statements today suggest that the TRR deal is unrelated to its ongoing enrichment activity. In fact they are integrally linked," he said.
  • Clinton spoke over the phone with Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu over the weekend, but Crowley was "not aware" of any calls to them over the weekend. And the U.S. isn't mad at Brazil and Turkey for upsetting their UN sanctions push, according to Crowley. "We welcome the fact that Turkey and Brazil continue to try to engage Iran and see if Iran is willing to come forward and address the international community's concern. It remains to be seen whether this joint declaration passes that test," he said.
  • So what next? Crowley said the ball is still in Iran's court. "The burden is on Iran," he said, "Iran has to come forward and address the international concerns." Iran has agree to cooperate with the IAEA and suspend enrichment, for starters. If they do that, "We remain prepared to engage Iran anywhere," Crowley said. Overall, the message is, "We remain skeptical that this represents anything fundamentally new."
  • In between dealing with that issue, Clinton spoke over the phone with Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa to prepare President Felipe Calderon's state visit to Washington later this week. "I wouldn't be surprised if Mexico's concerns about the Arizona law are also part of the discussion," Crowley predicted.
  • Clinton also dropped in on the meeting between Undersecretary Bill Burns and Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov, who discussed Iran, START, and the 123 Agreement
  • Special Envoy George Mitchell left Monday evening for the next round of proximity talks. He'll meet with Palestinian officials on Wednesday and Israeli officials on Thursday. Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman was in Baghdad Monday and met with President Jalal Talabani, present and future Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
  • USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah is in Sudan and visited Juba Monday. He's been busy, meeting with the World Food Program, the UNAMID, the U.N. Population Fund and other UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs. He also started a new sustainable agriculture called the Food, Agribusiness and Rural Markets (the FARM project, get it?).
  • Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero is en route to Indonesia to talk about human security issues. Assistant Secretary for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez is in Brazil Monday and Tuesday. Ambassador for global AIDS, Ambassador Eric Goosby, was in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania Monday.
  • Clinton led a memorial service Monday for the embassy victims of the Haiti earthquake. The two U.S. embassy employees lost were Cultural Affairs Officer Victoria DeLong and Centers for Disease Control staff member Diane Berry Caves. U.S. Air Force Major Kenneth Bourland was also killed, as well as the wife and two children of Foreign Service Officer Andrew Wylie. Six embassy local staffers were lost, as well as several of their family members.
  • "We can never replace the men, women, and children who lost their lives in the earthquake - Haitians, Americans, and others from around the world," Clinton said, "But we can remember them. We can celebrate them. And we can honor them as we continue our mission in Haiti."