The Cable

Heritage targets Republican senators who might favor New START

Following Tuesday's election, one of the biggest foreign policy questions is whether far-right groups will press mainstream Republicans to resist key items on the Obama administration's international agenda, such as the New START treaty with Russia.

Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, answered that question in the affirmative Thursday by sending out a new mailer across the country targeting specific senators, mostly Republicans, in the hope of pressuring them to vote against the treaty.  The campaign targets Democratic senators in conservative states, Republican senators in liberal states, and even Republicans who have indicated support for New START, such as Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN).

"Why did Senator Bob Corker vote in committee to put Russia's military interests ahead of our own," reads one iteration of the mailing, referring to Corker's vote to approve the treaty in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sept. 16. With a picture juxtaposing the images of Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mailer alleges that President Obama and lawmakers are using the "lame duck" session of Congress to ram through the New START treaty, which it argues "severely weakens our national security."

Heritage also alleges that the treaty, which would cut levels of the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons arsenals, would somehow lead to more nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, which the mailer refers to as "countries that want to destroy us."

"There's still time to put a stop to this dangerous plan," the mailer says. "You can make a difference by urging Sen. Corker to change his mind and oppose New START."

Responding directly to the mailer, Corker's Chief of Staff Todd Womack told The Cable that Heritage's mailer contains several errors and promotes several misconceptions about the New START treaty.

"Obviously if the claims made in the mailer were true, there is no way Senator Corker would support the treaty, but they are not. Senator Corker would never support a treaty that undermines the safety and security of the citizens of the United States or limits America's ability to pursue effective missile defense, and to suggest otherwise is irresponsible," Womack said.

Corker is also still awaiting firm commitments from the administration for what he considers long overdue investments in the modernization of the nuclear arsenal before committing to voting "yes" on the floor, he added.

Heritage's strategy includes targeting Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), considered to be the key vote on New START because he can potentially bring large parts of the GOP caucus in tow. The White House is said to be preparing new concessions on issues that Kyl has long advocated, such as even more funding for nuclear modernization and nuclear labs. So far, Kyl has not shown his cards.

The administration also has a fallback plan if Kyl ultimately balks: The State Department and the Vice President's office have been courting moderate Republicans, including Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, along with Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, in an attempt to peel off the  8 to 10 GOP votes needed to reach the 67-vote threshold for ratification. Though it seems unlikely that so many Senate Republicans would buck party leadership, the administration's earlier outreach to Corker and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) was helpful in getting both those senators to support the New START treaty in committee last month.

The Heritage effort targets all of those GOP senators, and also Democratic senators from red states such as Montana's Max Baucus and Jon Tester. In Utah, Bob Bennett has indicated he is inclined to support New START, making him a target as well.

Heritage has been working with presumptive 2012 candidate Mitt Romney on the issue. Other Tea Party-related groups such as Liberty Central, run by Clarence Thomas' wife Ginny Thomas, are also on board. But it's not clear that the New START treaty is an issue that voters really follow, much less vote on.

Heritage claims that it wants to pressure various senators to get off the fence and declare their position on New START, one way or the other.

"For too long, senators have stood quietly on the sidelines, refusing to take a firm stand on the issue," said Michael Needham, Heritage's chief executive officer. "Given the administration's desire to see the treaty ratified during a lame-duck session, Americans deserve to know what is at stake and where their senators stand."

On Thursday, President Obama called for the Senate to take up the treaty during the lame duck session. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is said to be waiting until the White House tells him that it has secured enough "yes" votes before scheduling floor time for the vote. The Senate returns to town with two new senators on Nov. 15, neither of whom has taken a position on New START.

The Cable

Richard Holbrooke: Back seat driver in Afghanistan

On a recent trip to Afghanistan, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke got a first-hand taste of why Afghans, and especially the Afghan leadership, are so eager to get rid of private security contractors operating in their country after taking a scary car ride around Kabul against his wishes.

In a briefing with reporters last week, Holbrooke revealed the story of how  security contractors in Afghanistan refused to take his orders -- highlighting the problem of outsourcing security functions to private corporations. After recounting the incident, Holbrooke said that he better understood Afghan President Hamid Karzai's concerns about private security contractors. Karzai still plans to kick all private security contractors out of Afghanistan, despite administration efforts to negotiate the details.

Holbrooke related an episode that occurred during a trip to Afghanistan. "I was driving through the street in a vehicle. I was a little bit late to a meeting. There was traffic. The vehicle, which was armored, of course, was careening around in a way I felt very uncomfortable about," Holbrooke said.  "And I said to the guy sitting next to the driver, who was cradling a big weapon -- I said, ‘You don't have to drive that way. Slow down.'... And he said to me, 'I don't work for you, sir.' And I said, 'Who do you work for?' And he just was silent again. And I was outraged. I was embarrassed. So I know where President Karzai's coming from on this."

Aid groups in Afghanistan have been scrambling to figure out how to comply with Karzai's August decree that all private security contractors must leave Afghanistan by the end of this year. Some international aid groups are already preparing to shut down projects if their safety can't be assured. The Obama administration has been discussing the decree with Karzai, in the hopes of expanding exemptions for contractors who are protecting U.S. government personnel to cover some other groups, such as those that protect international aid workers, that the United States feels are crucial to success of the international mission.

Those negotiations are being conducted by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Gen. David Petraeus, the U.N. representative Steffan di Mistura, the British Embassy, and the British Department for International Development. Holbrooke supports these negotiations, which have already resulted in the deadline being extended until February, but said he said he personally agrees with the thrust of Karzai's decree.

"Afghanistan is a sovereign country and respect for its sovereignty was necessary," Holbrooke said. "You had tens of thousands of security guys from all sorts of countries wandering around heavily armed, some of them illegal, some of them highly corrupt, some not corrupt, under multiple contracts. You can't have a country in a situation like that. So now, to get it under control and still be able to protect the international aid workers if they need protection, to get it under control without creating different sets of problems is a real challenge."

Karzai will announce the final rules pertaining to his decree on private security contractors in Afghanistan on Nov. 15, after which there will be a 90-day implementation period.

"This will outline the process by which there will be a transition from the current situation, which is intolerable and untenable, to a point where private security companies do not exist or exist only under conditions that the government is comfortable with and that they operate," Holbrooke said.

AFP/Getty