The Cable

Park 51 Imam could discuss controversy on State Department Mideast tour

Imam Feisal Rauf, the man behind the Park 51 Muslim community center, a.k.a. the "Ground Zero Mosque," leaves this week for a three-nation Middle East tour on behalf of the State Department, on which he is expected to speak about the controversy surrounding his project.

Rauf will leave New York and arrive in Manama, Bahrain Aug. 19, where he will stay until Aug. 23, a State Department official tells The Cable. On Aug. 24, Rauf will arrive in Doha, Qatar, where he will stay until Aug. 27. From Aug. 28 to Sept. 2, he will be in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, after which he will return to New York. The U.S. government is covering the costs of the trip but won't disclose the amount.

And while the State Department has no idea and no control over the specifics ofwhat Rauf will talk about as he tours the region, officials note that his agenda could not be more directly related to the issue of backlash against his project, still slated to be built in lower Manhattan.

"His program is about religious diversity and tolerance in America. Will he relate that to his personal situation? Probably," another State Department official said.

The State Department has been shy about talking about Rauf and the trip, ostensibly to avoid wading into the controversy over the community center. But that didn't stop officials from posting Mayor Michael Bloomberg's impassioned defense of the project on the State Department-run website, America.gov. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that because the site is directed at foreign audiences, State was not violating the Smith-Mundt Act, which prohibits the U.S. government from spreading propaganda inside American borders.

The trip is organized by the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs and will not include any fundraising. This is his third trip with the State Department; the first one was in 2007 under the George W. Bush administration. Rauf also visited Egypt in January.

Rauf's pending trip is independent of the Park 51 project and was organized before it became subject of a national debate, though the issue will now likely be front and center when the imam arrives in the Middle East. In fact, the State Department chose Rauf for its public diplomacy program not for the sake of controversy, but because he had a reputation as a moderate, open-minded religious leader.

"His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known, and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it's like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States," Crowley said, adding that he is not permitted to fundraise for the project as part of the State Department program.

Meanwhile, Sharif El-Gamal, the developer of the project, told NY1 Tuesday that he has no plans to move the mosque and is not aware of any meeting to consider a new location. He said the building will be "the most famous community center in the world" and he criticized those who are making political hay out of the mosque debate.

"I am surprised at the way that politics is being played in 2010. There are issues that are affecting our country, which are real issues: unemployment, poverty, the economy," he said. "And it's a really sad day for America when our politicians choose to look at a constitutional right and use that as basis for their elections."

The Cable

Brownback’s case against proposed Turkish ambassador Ricciardone

Last week, we reported that the GOP is holding up the nomination of Frank Ricciardone to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Today, we bring you the letter from Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explaining his objections to the nomination.

Brownback, who will retire from the Senate at the end of this year, has long been critical of Ricciardone dating back to the nominee's time as ambassador to Egypt during the Bush administration and as one of the key officials chosen to strengthen Iraqi opposition groups in early 2003. Brownback states in his letter that Ricciardone "downplayed" the Bush administration's pro-democracy efforts in Egypt and "did not favor" a strong effort to work with Iraqi opposition groups in the run up to the invasion.

"From the latter days of the Bush administration to today, opposition groups from Africa to the Middle East to Asia have been questioning the U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights. Given these questions, I am not convinced that Ambassador Ricciardone is the right ambassador for Turkey at this time -- despite his extensive diplomatic experience," Brownback wrote.

Brownback also criticized Ricciardone for his work while in Cairo to establish an endowment fund to provide non-military aid to Egypt, which the senator argued would have been a slush fund for the Mubarak government and contributed to the further marginalization of democracy and human rights opposition groups there. The Obama administration is negotiating over the controversial endowment even to this day.

"I believe democracy and human rights should be considered on par with other aspects of our bilateral relationships, but I am not convinced that Ambassador Ricciardone shares that view. I am concerned that the endowment plan will marginalize further discussion about the development of democracy in Egypt," he wrote.

All of this speaks to how Ricciardone would conduct American diplomacy in Turkey, according to Brownback, who alleges that secular Turkish opposition groups are already complaining they don't have good access to current ambassador Jim Jeffrey, who is on his way to take over for Chris Hill in Baghdad.

Brownback is requesting that State provide written answers and assurances on a list of questions ranging from Ricciardone's views on numerous issues to assurances regarding how the State Departmetn will conduct aspects of foreign policy.  He also signaled that Turkey's recent decisions to vote against new sanctions on Iran at the U.N. Security Council and harshly criticize Israel in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident will also be part of Ricciardone's confirmation debate, which could resume when Congress returns from recess.

"I am also concerned that we have not fully considered the ramifications of a Turkish tilt toward Iran and away from Israel, and I will give those issues some attention before the Senate reconvenes in September," Brownback wrote.

Full letter after the jump:

Brownback Letter to State Dept Re Nom of Ricciardone August 2010