The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Viktor Bout,

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

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikloay Mladenov Tuesday to discuss the upcoming Lisbon NATO summit, the Western Balkans, and Afghanistan.
  • The State Department is not pleased with the plans of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit southern Lebanon and throw rocks at Israeli soldiers along the border. "I don't normally recommend travel arrangements for President Ahmadinejad. We certainly would hope that Iran would play a constructive role in the region. Throwing stones, whether they are literal or figurative -- I would not consider constructive," Crowley said. "We did say to Lebanese officials, you know, [Iran] is a country that is actively undermining your government."
  • Crowley rejected remarks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the Middle East peace talks were only there to serve President Obama's domestic political interests. "The pursuit of peace in the Middle East is in everyone's interest, including Syria's. We're not trying to score points with anyone; we're trying to end a conflict," said Crowley.
  • Crowley wouldn't confirm reports that the U.S. is pushing for a government in Iraq where former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi would become a figurehead president and current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would retain his position. "First of all, we're not picking any winners, you know, in this. We don't have any favorite candidates for any office," said Crowley. "That said, we believe that all four winning blocs, including Iraqiya and State of Law and others, should be able to play a role in the new government."
  • No word if there has been progress in the talk in Sudan over how to conduct the January referendum in Abyei. Special Envoy Scott Gration and Ambassador Princeton Lyman, as well as U.N. Representative Susan Rice are there. "The talks continue today, and they're likely to continue tomorrow. We believe that the parties are engaging frankly on the substance," Crowley said. As for the overall referendum preparations, he said, "The preparations are behind schedule, but we think, through an agreement and rapid action, a successful referendum can still occur on time."
  • Merchant of Death Viktor Bout is still in Thailand fighting extradition to the United States but a court ruling in Bankok Tuesday may signal that the final hurdle has been conquered. "There's a kind of a procedural period of time following today's ruling," Crowley said. "But we look forward to having Viktor Bout in a prison near us very soon."
  • Ambassador Eric Goosby announced that the Obama administration intends to seek $4 billion for the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis for the years 2011 through 2013. "This pledge is a 30-percent increase in the U.S. investment over the preceding three-year period," Crowley said, acknowledging that the money still has to be appropriated. "It is our commitment that we will seek this funding from the Congress in each of these years."
  • Registration opened Tuesday for 2012 diversity visa lottery program, which gives away 50,000 green cards to lucky immigrants from countries with low immigration rates. Anyone can enter from now until November 3, just sign up here. "This is the first year that the entire process is electronic, including notification of selected applicants," Crowley said. So if you are in a country where internet is scarce, you are out of luck.

The Cable

Report: U.S. ranks low on effectiveness of foreign aid

The United States may be the largest donor of foreign assistance in the world, but it ranks among the lowest in terms of the quality and effectiveness of its aid, according to a new report.

The Center for Global Development (CGD), in cooperation with the Brookings Institution, released its "Quality of ODA Assessment" report Tuesday, which assesses the aid provided to 23 countries by more than 150 aid countries to determine how much value they are getting for their foreign aid money. Although the United States does poorly overall when compared to other countries or multilateral organizations, some agencies rate better than others: The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Defense Department get poor marks, while the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) does much better.

U.S. foreign assistance has suffered by attempting to address too many of the world's problems -- a challenge that has spread operations too thin to specialize in any one field. "USAID doesn't build any comparative advantage the way many other donors do in any particular specialization or country," explained CGD President Nancy Birdsall, speaking about the report with The Cable. "Over many years USAID has been subjected to more kinds of pressures that have made it less and less efficient, particularly on fostering institutions."

The study looked at 30 separate, measurable indicators and evaluated them in terms of four dimensions: maximizing efficiency (how smartly the money is distributed), fostering institutions (whether the money is helping host governments), reducing the burden on recipient countries (how much the host countries need to do to get the money), and transparency and learning (how much we know about how the aid is being spent).

CDG and Brookings even set up an interactive web tool that allows one to compare the results of different countries and different agencies.

The report is based on data from 2008, but CGD plans to update the information when new data becomes available.

However, Birdsall was optimistic that the current administration was making progress in improving the way the United States distributes aid. "The Obama administration has done a very good job on articulating what needs to be done," she said, referring to the president's speech at the U.N. General Assembly and the recent U.S. Global Leadership Coalition panel with Cabinet Secretaries Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and Timothy Geithner. She also said that the administration's recently completed overall development policy review holds out the promise of improvements in the future.

But the rebuilding of USAID, which saw its ranks fall from 15,000 to 3,000 over the last two decades, will take years of painstaking work. Birdsall is also calling on the administration to designate a lead U.S. agency for some of its largest aid initiatives, such as the food security and global health programs.

"Nothing much yet has happened," she said. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating, not in the talking. The direction is right, the rhetoric is good, let's see what the action is."