The Cable

Breifing Skipper: Europe, Mitchell, Pakistan, Lebanon, Sudan

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:

  • Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg is off on a trip to central Europe that will include stops in Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland. Crowley mentioned that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit the Balkans soon.  Undersecretary of State Bill Burns is traveling this week to Yemen, Iraq, and Jordan. "In Iraq, he will continue to encourage the political factions in Iraq to form an inclusive and representative government, as well as review progress in the transition to a civilian-led partnership in Iraq," Crowley said.
  • Regarding the State Department's Travel Alert for the entire continent of Europe, Crowley tried to put it in context. "We are saying to American citizens, ‘Continue with your travel plans if they include Europe, but be cautious and be aware that we are following, you know, multiple streams of threat information. And we felt, having tracked intelligence over a lengthy period of time, it was appropriate to issue this alert at this moment.'"
  • Special Envoy George Mitchell is back in the U.S. after a tour through the Middle East that included stop in Qatar, Egypt and Jordan. No progress reported on saving the peace talks and the key meeting of the Arab League where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will speak has been postponed until Friday. Clinton phoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend.
  • Crowley couldn't and therefore didn't answer persistent questions coming from one press corps member seeking to know when was the last time the U.S. failed to back up Israel at the U.N. The questioner was ostensibly referencing reports that the administration was trying to convince the Israelis to extend the settlement freeze by promising to veto any future attacks on Israel in international fora. "I'm not sure that is a question that can possibly be answered," Crowley said.
  • The U.S. can still move goods to resupply troops in Afghanistan despite that the Pakistani government has closed one of the supply routes in order to protest the NATO airstrikes that killed some Pakistani troops. "I'm only aware of one particular gate that remains closed. We do have multiple routes into Afghanistan," Crowley said. "The flow of materiel through Pakistan to Afghanistan continues, but this is an issue that we continue to discuss with Pakistan."
  • The State Department is "satisfied" with the level of cooperation by the Pakistani government and is supporting the civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari, which is under pressure from elements of the Pakistani military to yield power. "We continue to support civilian government in Pakistan, and much of our effort is focused on helping to strengthen Afghan civilian institutions," Crowley said.
  • Crowley called on Syria to respect the sovereignty of the Lebanese state and reiterated U.S. support for the special tribunal on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. "We are committed to do everything possible to support, you know, Lebanon's sovereignty. And that's what we're doing," Crowley said. He also referenced recent high level U.S. visits to Lebanon, which included the visit of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy last week.
  • Crowley said he was hopeful that the Senate might confirm the still lingering nominees for Ambassador to Turkey (Frank Ricciardone) and Ambassador to Syria (Robert Ford) and added that the delay is hurting American diplomatic efforts. "It does have an impact. These are vitally important countries to the future of the region. They are countries that, you know, we need that kind of day-to-day interaction with. And we're hopeful that when the Senate reconvenes after the election, that their nominations will go forward," he said.
  • Special Envoy Scott Gration and Ambassador Princeton Lyman are in Sudan right now engaged in talks about how to hold the upcoming referendum in the district of Abyei. "And we hope that, through these discussions in the coming days, we can reach an agreement that allows the referendum in Abyei to go forward," Crowley said.

The Cable

Conservative think tanks oppose Republican efforts to trim defense budget

As Republicans are increasingly looking to the Pentagon to trim costs, three leading conservative think tanks are forming an alliance to combat rising pressures to cut the defense budget, which totaled $663.8 billion this year.

The new project, called "Defending Defense," was launched Monday as a joint venture between the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), and the Heritage Foundation. The aim is to defend military funding and separate defense spending from the efforts to cut overall federal spending in light of the country's miserable fiscal situation.

"We should be vigilant against waste in every corner of the budget. But anyone seeking to restore our fiscal health should look at entitlements first, not across-the-board cuts aimed at our men and women in uniform," reads an op-ed in Monday's Wall Street Journal co-written by AEI President Arthur Brooks, Heritage President Edwin Feulner, and FPI Director Bill Kristol.

The conservative establishment sees a rising tide inside the Republican Party in favor of looking at the defense budget for savings. The Cable has reported on the struggle within the Tea Party on that very question, but even in "mainstream" Republican circles, the debate is heating up.

"It is definitely aimed at conservatives as well as liberals, particularly with the prospect of a Republican majority in at least one of the chambers of Congress in November," said AEI's Thomas Donnelly, who is heavily involved in the project.

He pointed to a range of Republicans who have publicly questioned the wisdom of ever-rising defense budgets, including the deficit commission's Alan Simpson, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul, and prospective GOP presidential candidate Mitch Daniels.

"Mitch Daniels is much more concerned about the balance sheet than about strategic priorities," Donnelly said about the former White House budget director who is rumored to be a potential Republican nominee in 2012. "In a narrow sense, our project is very much a discussion to remind conservatives what their core beliefs are."

FPI Executive Director Jamie Fly said the project will include fact sheets, briefing materials for officials and Hill staffers, as well as events in the near future. The group issued its first fact sheet, which argues that the huge increases in defense spending since 2001 aren't as significant as they appear -- and why further increases are necessary, despite rising domestic debt and deficit.

"By having several serious organizations raise awareness about this issue, we hope to send the message that the defense budget is not something that should be tinkered with even as some take a look at cutting overall federal spending," said Fly."In part it's to show a united front on defense to those involved in the debate, especially those who are concerned about runaway spending."

The three think tanks are not alone in their call for more defense spending. An independent high-level panel created to examine the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review concluded that defense spending must rise if the U.S. is to fulfill its worldwide security commitments.

Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates' drive to find $100 billion worth of savings in the next five years isn't about cutting the defense budget. Under Gates' plan, the military can keep what it catches, meaning if they find waste they can spend the savings on other things. Gates is arguing that overall defense spending levels shouldn't go down even after efficiencies are found.

Still, as Congress grapples with how to eventually construct next year's budget, there's no doubt that defense funding is on the table, as illustrated by the $2.1 billion cut in the defense budget the Senate Appropriations Committee proposed for fiscal 2011.

"Were the Republicans to win control of the House in November, there is no guarantee at all that they would grant Secretary Gates' wish to spare defense," wrote Gordon Adams, former head of national security spending at the White House during the Clinton administration.

Adams argues, in direct opposition to the conservative think tanks, that the way to square America's huge overseas commitments with the declining spending power of the U.S. government is to reevaluate what national security priorities Washington can actually afford.

"It is time for a more fundamental look at America's overseas engagement and role, for setting priorities among military missions that support our role, for parsing acceptable risk in setting those priorities, and for reducing the force, investments and budgets at DOD to fit the new design," he said.