The Cable

Cable exclusive: Inside the White House conference call on child soldiers

The White House spent an hour Friday afternoon trying to convince angry Hill staffers and human rights activists that "naming and shaming" governments that recruit child soldiers, rather than imposing Congressionally-mandated sanctions on them, will better address the problem. But advocacy leaders are upset with the administration and rejected top White House officials' contention that removing sanctions against four troubled states will be a positive move.

The White House began a conference call on the issue Friday afternoon by apologizing to the NGO and Hill community for the decision's botched rollout, which was announced only through a short official presidential memorandum on Monday and then reported on by The Cable on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The call was off the record and not for press purposes, but a recording was made available to The Cable.

"This is a call that should have happened before you read about the administration's child soldiers' posture in the newspaper," said Samantha Power, the National Security Council's senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights. "Given the way you all heard about the implementation of the statute, I can understand why some of the reactions that you had were prevalent."

Power defended the president's decision to waive penalties under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, which was set to go into effect this month, for Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, and Yemen. She argued that identifying these countries as violators while giving them one more year to stop recruiting underage troops would help make progress.

"Our judgment was brand them, name them, shame them, and then try to leverage assistance in a fashion to make this work," said Power, adding that this was the first year the Obama administration had to make a decision on this issue, so they want to give the violator countries one more year to show progress.

"In year one to just say we're out of here, best of luck, we wish you well... Our judgment is we'll work from inside the tent."

But Hill staffers and advocacy leaders on the call weren't buying what Power was selling. They were upset that they learned about the decision via The Cable, and challenged Power on each point that she made.

For example, Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch, pointed out that the law was passed two years ago.

"The law was enacted in 2008, so countries have had two years to know that this was coming down the pike," she said. "So the consequences of the law really shouldn't be taking anyone by surprise, so to say countries need a year to get their act together is really problematic."

She also disputed Power's contention on the call that "there's evidence that our diplomatic engagement and this military assistance has resulted in some changes."

"The U.S. has been providing training for years already with no real change on the ground," said Becker. "We haven't seen significant changes in practice so far from the engagement approach, so that seems to indicate to me we need to change the approach, maybe withholding programs until we see changes on the ground."

"I think the logic of engagement is something reasonable people can disagree on," Power responded. "There's probably empirical evidence on both sides."

Advocates on the call did acknowledge Chad's efforts on child soldier demobilization, but lamented that little or no progress has been seen in the DRC or with South Sudan's Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA). But they wanted to know: If the administration believes that the threat of the sanctions has caused progress, then how does removing that threat keep the pressure on?

"Why remove that leverage now when we've seen it's been so valuable?" asked Scott Stedjan, senior policy advisor at Oxfam America

Jesse Eaves, policy advisor for children in crisis at World Vision, was one of several on the call to wonder why the administration decided to waive all sanctions, rather than using a part of the law that allows the continuation of military assistance to violator countries, along as that assistance goes toward military professionalization.

"Naming and shaming has not worked," he said. "You can give support under the law. Much of the aid that's even discussed in the justification memo that many of us have seen can still be given to these countries if they show a reasonable attempt to demobilize child soldiers."

Overall, Power wanted to point out that the administration is still intent on fighting the use of child soldiers and that waiving the sanctions doesn't mean that all pressures will stop. She promised that if these countries don't shape up, the administration will take a tougher line when reevaluating the sanctions next year.

Power repeatedly attempted to argue that the attention over the president's decision to waive sanctions was exactly the kind of public pressure needed to spur violator governments to change. However, her argument was complicated by the fact that the administration failed to tell anyone about the decision and announced it with no rollout or explanation whatsoever.

"I do think there's something different between what happened in 2008 [when the law passed] versus actually being named this week," she said. "And we're already seeing out in the field via our embassies a huge amount of discomfort and angst on the part of those countries about being branded in this way."

Power said at the end of the call that the administration plans to capitalize on the fallout from its decision. She said that the administration planned on "[u]sing the attention from this moment and the leverage of having abstained from having put the sanctions in effect right now and saying... ‘You're not going to get so lucky next time if we don't see some progress.'"

Overall, the call showed that the White House realized it botched the rollout of the decision but is standing by the decision itself. Next, they will have to defend it on Capitol Hill, where staffers are set to receive a special briefing on the issue next week.

"I think it's unfortunate that the NGO community and those in Congress who wrote the law were not involved in its implementation," said Kody Kness, an aide to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), one of the lead sponsors of the law. "I think that's a missed opportunity."

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The Cable

Washington won't mediate between Russia and Georgia on WTO

The Obama administration has been touting its progress in negotiations with Russia over Moscow's bid to join the World Trade Organization, but the White House has no intention of helping Russia overcome the biggest remaining obstacle: Georgia.

National Economic Council Chairman Larry Summers was in Moscow last week, where he announced that "the end is in sight" for U.S. -Russian agreement on outstanding bilateral issues, such as Russia's actions related to intellectual property rights. Summers also explained why Russia's WTO membership is in America's interest.

"The potential of this market for American business is very great... and it's important for the goal President Obama has set for doubling exports over the next five years," he said.

But after Russia has satisfied Washington's concerns on intellectual property protection, poultry issues, etc., it will have to choose whether or not to make concessions to Georgia. The two nations fought a limited war in 2008 and Russia still has troops deployed on Georgian soil to this day.

The Georgians may have been waiting for the Obama administration to approach them with an offer that would entice them to consent to Russia's WTO membership. Any one WTO country can veto Russian accession and Georgia is the leading candidate to do so. Russia may have been waiting for Washington to pressure Georgia to drop their objections. A senior administration official told The Cable that both sides can stop waiting because Washington is not going to get involved.

"This is a bilateral issue between Russia and Georgia, this is not a trilateral issue that we are supposed to solve somehow," the senior administration official said, explaining that the Obama administration has no intention of trying to exert influence on Georgia on this issue and will not offer any carrots or sticks to Tbilisi.

"People somehow think we are going to mediate this between the Russians and the Georgians. That's not our job," the official said.

The Obama administration's position is that Russia should make the first move. It is unlikely that there will be membership for Russia if basic borders and customs issues are not resolved with Georgia, the official said.

"That has to be done before Russia joins the WTO," the official said. "And as it is Russia who is seeking to join the WTO, we would see it as up to them to come up with a way to start negotiations."

So what does Georgia want from Russia? Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri spelled it out in an exclusive interview with The Cable.

"Georgia's support to Russia's WTO membership is conditional. The precondition is fulfillment of obligation taken by Russia in our bilateral accession protocol in 2004 and solving issues of customs administration on the Georgian-Russian border," he said. "Unregulated illegal trade as it takes place now is counter WTO rules. Russia should become member of this rules-based organization but only if it respects trade rules."

Of course, one huge problem is how to define the "Georgian-Russian border." If you are Georgia, that includes the borders between Russia and what the Obama administration calls the "occupied" Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Some experts believe there's a compromise that could square that circle. Damon Wilson, director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council, said there could be some international presence on the Russia-Abkhazia and Russia-South Ossetia border, similar to the arrangement in Transnistria, a disputed territory on the border of Moldova and the Ukraine.

But he agreed with the Obama administration official that the burden to begin resolving Russia-Georgia issues that lie in the way of WTO membership is on Russia, not Georgia.

"Too many people frame this as ‘are the Georgians going to be the spoiler.' That already puts the Georgians in a box," Wilson said. "The issue is, do the Russians want in the WTO or not and if so, what are they going to do?"

The Georgians are taking a reasonable position and are not trying to make a stink out of this, recognizing that their leverage is ultimately limited, he said. But their concerns are valid and represent a real trade concern that needs to be addressed.

"If Russia is going to be a part of this, it can't enter on day one with some sort of exception. The first sign is that the Russians need to come to the table and talk to the Georgians."

Wilson's views represent those of many in the Russia watching community in Washington who wonder if the Obama administration wants Russia to join the WTO more than Russia itself wants to join. After all, in addition to the economic benefits for the United States outlined by Summers, WTO membership for Russia is one deliverable Obama would like to point to as part of his "reset" policy.

"Russians have to want this," said David Kramer, former assistant secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. "Russians have to choose whether they work with the Georgians to solve the problem or whether it's more important for them to hold Georgia up as the obstacle."

Kramer, a frequent critic of the Obama reset policy, said the administration has taken exactly the right approach on this issue by putting the onus back on Russia and Georgia to work it out without U.S. mediation.

"Sure, [the administration] is looking to get some wins on the board for Russia reset, but the Bush administration was doing the same thing. If Bush was in office today, we'd be doing the START treaty and we'd be pushing WTO," Kramer said.

Meanwhile, there's a growing murmur on Capitol Hill that the path toward U.S. support for Russian WTO membership in Congress might not be as assured as the administration might hope. Congress must repeal the 35-year-old Jackson-Vanick law, which was meant to support then Soviet emigrants. The law as currently written prevents the U.S. from granting Russian Permanent Normal Trade Relations status.

"Russia would be under no obligation to comply with its commitments to the US made in bilateral accession negotiations and the US would have no recourse to WTO dispute-resolution mechanisms. Essentially, we would get none of the benefits of having Russia inside the rules-based system if Jackson-Vanik isn't repealed," said Samuel Charap, fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Although the Soviet emigrant issue no longer exists, a Republican-controlled Congress could resist that move due to concerns about Russia on any number of issues.

"When you look at the makeup of what the Congress is likely to look like next week, that's not the most auspicious setting for the administration's argument, so there would have be a serious push by the administration and supporters on the Hill to get this done," a senior GOP Congressional aide said.

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