The Cable

State Department compares Park 51 Imam to Shirley Sherrod


The State Department's top spokesman cautioned reporters Tuesday not to take snippets of edited remarks on the Internet by the "Ground Zero mosque" imam and use them to brand him a radical, lest they repeat the mistakes made by the media in calling former USDA official Shirley Sherrod a racist based on edited clips of her promoted on conservative websites.

Imam Feisal Rauf, the spiritual leader of the proposed Park 51 community center in lower Manhattan, is on his State Department-sponsored trip to the Persian Gulf right now, giving speeches in Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates about what it's like to be a Muslim in America.

Rauf has been traveling on behalf of the department since 2007 on trips sponsored by both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. He belongs to the progressive Sufi sect of Islam and has been praised as a bridge-builder even by conservative pro-Israel bloggers, such as the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who has had extensive interactions with him.

But activists who oppose the Park 51 project have pointed to various statements by Rauf to build the case that he's dangerous radical. For example, yesterday Pamela Geller of the blog Atlas Shrugs posted a clip of excerpts from a speech Rauf gave in 2005. Those excerpts include Rauf saying:

We tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaida has on its hands of innocent non Muslims. You may remember that the US-led sanctions against Iraq led to the death of over half a million Iraqi children. This has been documented by the United Nations. And when Madeleine Albright, who has become a friend of mine over the last couple of years, when she was Secretary of State and was asked whether this was worth it, said it was worth it. [emphasis Geller's]

P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs, told reporters Tuesday that they shouldn't be quick to take those remarks out of context.

"I would just caution any of you that choose to write on this, that once again you have a case where a blogger has pulled out one passage from a very lengthy speech. If you read the entire speech, you will discover exactly why we think he is rightly participating in this national speaking tour."

The Cable asked Crowley directly, "Is he the Muslim Shirley Sherrod?"

Crowley responded, "That's a good cautionary tale for everybody."

The University of South Australia's Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre has the full transcript and full audio recording of Rauf's 2005 remarks. Here are some excerpts not posted by the Atlas Shrugs blog:

On the bonds between Islam and Judeo Christianity:

We are united with Christians and Jews in terms of our belief in one God. In the tradition of the prophets. In our tradition of scriptures. The Jewish prophets, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist and Mary are in fact religious personalities and prophets of the Islamic faith as well...

From the point of view of Islamic theology, Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic history, the vast majority of Islamic history, it has been shaped or defined by a notion of multiculturalism and multireligiosity, if you might use that term. From the very beginning of Islamic history Islam created space for Christians of various persuasions, of Jews and even of Muslims of different schools of thought within the fabric of society.

On religious freedom:

A necessary part of this is to embrace and to welcome and to invite the religious voices in the public square, in the public debate, on how to build a good society. So multiculturalism, in my judgment, involves not only differences of culture and ethnicity but also multireligiosity, and that's where the challenge and the rub comes in for many because there is a perception that multireligiosity must mean the potential conflict between different religious voices in the public square. I, for one, believe that that is not in fact the case.

On religious tolerance:

[O]ur law, our sense of justice, our articulation of justice, must flow from these two commandments of loving our God and loving our neighbour, and if we are not sure of how to articulate the love of God in the public square we certainly can allow each person and each group of each religious group to choose to love God in the vernacular and in the liturgy that it chooses and it prefers, but it gives us a broad basis of agreement on which we can love our fellow human beings and this, I suggest, is the mandate that lies before us today as we embark on this 21st Century and is the mandate and the homework assignment that lies ahead of us.

On Islam and terrorism:

The broader community is in fact criticising and condemning actions of terrorism that are being done in the name of Islam... What complicates the discussion, intra-Islamically, is the fact that the West has not been cognisant and has not addressed the issues of its own contribution to much injustice in the Arab and Muslim world. It is a difficult subject to discuss with Western audiences but it is one that must be pointed out and must be raised.

Acts like the London bombing are completely against Islamic law. Suicide bombing, completely against Islamic law, completely, 100 per cent. But the facts of the matter is that people, I have discovered, are more motivated by emotion than by logic. If their emotions are in one place and their logic is behind, their emotions will drive their decisions more often than not, and therefore we need to address the emotional state of people and the extent to which those emotions are shaped by things that we can control and we can shape, this is how we will shape a better future.

Rauf is in Doha, Qatar, now, where in addition to giving a speech on Muslim life in America at a local university, he is meeting with government officials and NGO representatives and will hand out gifts and treats to children at the Doha Youth Center, Crowley said.

Although Rauf is getting questions about the controversy from his interlocutors and from the press in the areas he is visiting, don't expect him to talk about the Park 51 project, Crowley said.

"It's been suggested that through this tour he's going to be promoting this center, that's not true, or that he's going to be fundraising and that's not true," said Crowley. "He has chosen not to comment on the center so we can't be accused of doing things that are not consistent to the goals of the international program he's participating in and we respect those decisions."

Crowley also shot down another story in the conservative blogosphere today speculating that Rauf's wife Daisy Kahn will join the State Department-sponsored trip. Khan has elected to stay in the United States, he said.

The Cable

Exclusive: Jimmy Carter headed to North Korea on rescue mission


Jimmy Carter is set to travel to North Korea very soon, according to two sources familiar with the former president's plans, in what they characterized as a private mission to free a U.S. citizen imprisoned there.

Carter has decided to make the trip and is slated to leave for the Hermit Kingdom within days, possibly bringing his wife and daughter along for the journey. His goal is to bring back Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a 30-year-old man from Boston who was sentenced to 8 years in prison in April, about three months after he was arrested crossing into North Korea via China. In July, North Korea's official media organ reported that Gomes had tried to commit suicide. Earlier this month, the State Department secretly sent a four-man team to Pyongyang to visit Gomes, but was unable to secure his release.

There will be no U.S. government officials on the trip and Carter is traveling in his capacity as a private citizen, our sources report -- much like when former President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang last August to bring home Current TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had wandered across the North Korean border with China and were promptly arrested and threatened with years of hard labor.

A senior administration official would not confirm that Carter has decided to go but told The Cable, "If anyone goes it would be a private humanitarian effort." Carter's office did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

The Obama administration wants desperately to avoid conflating the Carter trip with its current stance toward North Korea, which is to engage Kim Jong Il's regime only if and when North Korea agrees to abide by its previous commitments and agrees to return to the six-party talks over its nuclear program, which Pyongyang abandoned in 2008.

Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, had offered to go to pick up Gomes and has been working on the case for months, but our sources report Carter was selected because he is not a serving U.S. official. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson had also been considered, but it's not clear why he was not chosen.

Carter has personal experience dealing with North Korea. In a dramatic and controversial June 1994 trip, after North Korea threatened to reprocess its spent nuclear fuel and the Clinton administration called for U.N. sanctions, the former president flew to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, and successfully persuaded him to negotiate.

This time, leading Korea experts say, Carter's trip should not be seen as a change in U.S. policy toward Pyongyang and will likely not yield any breakthrough in what most see as a diplomatic stalemate between the two sides.

"Obviously, State and the White House had to be involved in the planning of this. But if you're going to try to pitch this as a foreshadowing of a new diplomatic engagement or a breakthrough, it's certainly not going to be that," said L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, a think tank Focused on Northeast Asia.

When Clinton flew to Pyongyang to free the two Current TV reporters, who received a "special pardon" from the Dear Leader, he was extremely careful not to wade into policy matters.

"I don't anticipate that in any way President Carter will be carrying water for Obama or for any change in policy toward North Korea, because what is required for North Korea to move forward in negotiations with the United States is clear," said Flake.

But although Carter doesn't have official sanctioning to wade into North Korea policymaking, he might just do it anyway. Carter is known for having an independent streak, boldly taking on foreign-policy issues whether invited to do so or not.

Many former officials reference Carter's last trip to North Korea as evidence of this phenomenon. According to several officials who were involved in the policy at that time, Carter's deal with Kim Il Sung went beyond what the Clinton administration had authorized.

After the elder Kim's death the following month, the United States and North Korea entered talks in earnest, resulting in the 1994 Agreed Framework, which represents the most comprehensive cooperation between North Korea and the West to this day.

"As a result of his going slightly off the reservation, we got back to productive negotiations and before long negotiated the most effective agreement we've ever had with the North Koreans," said former ambassador Thomas Hubbard, who was then deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and deputy to the lead negotiator for the Agreed Framework, Robert Gallucci.

"You can't expect President Carter to take orders and do things the way the president wants it done, but to my mind it's a risk worth taking," Hubbard said. (Clinton himself later told former Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell, "I took a chance on him in North Korea, and that didn't turn out too badly," according to an account by the late David Halberstam.)

Not everyone remembers Carter's trip so fondly. Some Clinton administration officials were furious with Carter at the time for coloring outside the lines, and saw him as being deliberately roguish, considering that he brought a CNN camera crew with him and announced his deal before the Clintonites could object. The Clinton White House decided to take his ball and run with it after the fact.

"There are a lot of memories of Jimmy Carter's last trip to North Korea and a lot of people kind of thought he hijacked our diplomacy," said Joel Wit, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator who is now a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies and the founder of its website about North Korea, 38 North. "The bottom line is he did a good thing and the work he did there helped to pave the way to get the Agreed Framework."

Some experts argue that sending Carter is a bad idea that will only encourage further bad behavior on the part of Pyongyang.

"Sending another ex-president establishes a very bad precedent," said Amb. Charles "Jack" Pritchard, who served as special envoy to North Korea during the George W. Bush administration. "Mr. Carter has a history, an understanding, and a point-of-view where I can't imagine he would not, on his own, engage the North Koreans on substantive issues more than just the return of Mr. Gomes."

"If that's what they want," he said, referring to the Obama administration, "then he's a very appropriate choice."

Obama's tough posture toward Pyongyang, which includes as yet unspecified new financial sanctions and repeated military exercises with U.S. ally South Korea -- all of which are meant to show solidarity and strength after North Korea sunk the South Korea ship the Cheonan -- could be compromised, said Pritchard.

"It sends a signal, whether intended or not, that the United States is trying to get past the Cheonan incident, with the potential that we would be slightly out of step with the South Koreans," Pritchard said.

That's not a universally held view among former Bush administration officials, however.

"In the end, if the priority is to get the American out and that is what's required, then it's worth it, you've got to do it," said Victor Cha, Asia director for the National Security Council during the late Bush era. "If Carter can be helpful in getting some diplomatic dialogue going, that's fine. I hope he doesn't have some package to pull out of his pocket; that wouldn't be helpful."

Yet there are already signs that the Obama team's decision to essentially forgo direct engagement for the time being while concentrating on pressure and coordination with allies is fraying at the top levels.

We're told that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is said to be frustrated with the policy, had her Policy Planning chief Anne Marie Slaughter convene a high-level meeting at the State Department earlier this month to examine fresh options.

No matter what Carter does or how the North Koreans respond, the debate in Washington is likely to ramp up due to this trip, said Wit.

"The minute you send Jimmy Carter to North Korea, you've got to believe the pot is going to be stirred."

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