The Cable

Jon Stewart was wrong: Coburn is not holding up the Haiti relief money

More than $1 billion of aid to earthquake-torn Haiti still has not reached the island nation, but that's not the fault of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) -- despite the recent charge leveled against the conservative senator by the Daily Show's Jon Stewart. Rather, the complicated State Department-Congressional appropriations process is to blame for the delay.

On Sept. 30, Stewart took Coburn to task for his hold on the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act of 2010, a pending bill that would set five years' worth of authorizations (how Congress wants to see the money spent) for Haiti reconstruction and relief funding. Coburn wants to see Congress find savings in other parts of the State Department to pay for $500 million for Haiti next year, in fiscal 2011. Stewart's rant was based on this Sept. 28. AP article.

Referencing that, Stewart called Coburn an "international a**hole of mystery" and continued: "So for any Haitian who right now lives on top of a pile of rubble washing their clothes in their own urine bucket, while Sean Penn gives your kids cigarettes while regaling you with Fast Times at Ridgemont High anecdotes, hang in there. Cause we need to sort all this out so you won't have to fill out duplicate forms. You're welcome!"

The problem is that Coburn's hold is not responsible for delaying the $1.15 billion Congress already appropriated in late July to help Haiti. That bill, which is totally separate from the one Coburn is holding up, was the supplemental appropriations act signed by President Obama on July 29. Authorization bills, like the one that Coburn objects to, are useful for setting out Congressional direction on how money should be spend, but aren't strictly necessary to the disbursement of the funds. The appropriations bills are the ones that actually spend the money.

Even the State Department acknowledges that Coburn is not responsible for the delay in this tranche of funds for Haiti.

"Senator Coburn's hold is not related to the $1.15 billion pledge made by the administration in March," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Cable. He explained that the State Department and Congress are still working on how exactly to spend the money, totally apart from Coburn's hold on the separate authorization bill.

State was given 45 days from July 29 to submit a "spend plan" for the Haiti money, after which Congress had two weeks to submit questions about its plan. Today, Coburn posted the State Department's spending plan for Haiti, along with its transmittal letter, which shows that it was given to Congress Sept 20. That's 52 days after the bill was signed, more than the 45 allowed -- but still not bad for government work.

Now, State and the relevant congressional committees are finishing up their work on the spend plan and the State Department should start actually giving out the money soon, Crowley said.

"We continue to answer questions and address issues that members of Congress have raised, but we will soon be obligating those funds on the ground in high impact ways to help the people of Haiti build back better," Crowley said.

He also pointed out that Congress had already put $300 million on the ground in Haiti while the process to release this $1.15 billion progressed.

Coburn also posted USAID's fact sheet on humanitarian assistance to Haiti, which shows that over $1.1 billion has already been spent, although that was for emergency relief, not the longer term recovery and reconstruction assistance that is now being sought.

Overall, Crowley argues, "there has been no undue delay by the administration in releasing the $1.15 billion, given the notification requirements legislators included in the supplemental legislation."

Regardless, whether you are a Haitian or a late-night comedian wondering why the money hasn't flowed yet, in this instance, you should direct your questions to the State Department and Congress, not Tom Coburn.

"Coburn may be an a**hole when it comes to holding up bills, but he's not the bad guy here," said one Senate aide. "The a**hole here is the bureaucratic process... and Jon Stewart."

The Cable

Former Spanish PM: Obama is the least European president ever

Barack Obama is less interested in the U.S.-European relationship than any president in American history, according to the former Spanish prime minister.

"Europe is not a priority for this administration because the Atlantic system is not a priority for this administration," said Jose Maria Aznar, who led the Spanish government from 1996 to 2004. "We can be useful sometimes, but it not a priority. The priority is China, the Muslim world, the relationship with Russia."

In a wide-ranging interview with The Cable, Aznar argued that President Obama's policies on Afghanistan, his approach to Israel, his failed outreach to the Muslim world, and his overall neglect of U.S.-European relations has eroded his previously robust European support.

"Europeans defended Obama with more eagerness than Americans even. But now, many leaders understand that this president is the least European president in the history of the United States," Aznar said.

A staunch ally of the George W. Bush administration, Aznar has argued for the aggressive prosecution of the fight against Islamic extremism and supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq despite widespread opposition to the war in Spain. His party was voted out of office only 3 days after a series of train bombings in Madrid that Aznar's government initially blamed on the ETA separatist movement. He now leads a Spanish think tank and sits on the board of media conglomerate News Corp., which is owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Aznar said that the Obama administration has not clearly identified itself with what he calls "Western values."

"This American administration is different. This is the first American administration that is not exactly educated in Atlantic values, universal values, it is educated in other values. This is one of the reasons this administration's position regarding Israel is different than previous American administrations," he said.

Aznar was in town last month for the Washington launch of the Friends of Israel Initiative, a European pro-Israel group he helped to found. He took the opportunity to also comment on the leading religious controversy of the day: The proposed construction of an Islamic community center near the former site of the World Trade Center towers in downtown Manhattan.

"To build a mosque near Ground Zero is a serious mistake," he said. "The mistake is that most of the people identify the attacks of 9/11 with radical Islamists... In the feelings of a lot of people, for al Qaeda it will be a victory -- not only to destroy the towers but now to build a mosque there."

He also said that Europe is frustrated with a lack of a clear path forward for the war in Afghanistan.

"To have indecision in the government is very bad. If you look at Afghanistan, it's possible to say things are going well or going bad. But do you have the will to win or not? Are you going to win or not? Or do you want to pull out quickly?"

"If you want to win, please let us know. If you want to organize a pull out, please organize it. But it's not a good policy to maintain indecision in this instance, and finally the results are very bad not only for the interests of the West but also for the leadership of the United States."

AFP/Getty Images