The Cable

Clinton to ambassadors: We are all in uncharted territory

In the midst of the Egypt crisis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with almost every U.S. ambassador Wednesday at the State Department and told them their jobs will be getting more difficult as the events in the Arab world unfold.

"It goes without saying -- but I will say it anyway -- that this is a critical time for America's global leadership," Clinton told the ambassadors. "From the theft of confidential cables to 21st-century protest movements to development breakthroughs that have the potential to change millions of lives, we are all in uncharted territory, and that requires us to be more nimble, more innovative, and more accountable than ever before."

Over 200 ambassadors are in Washington this week for the first-ever global chiefs of mission conference, which was scheduled long before the recent string of revolts in the Arab world.

"We figured early February would be quiet, not much going on. What better time to pull you from your posts and responsibilities?" Clinton joked.

She spoke about the difficult budget environment for diplomacy and development this year, the role of civilian personnel in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.

But the political crisis in the Arab world, which has consequences for America's relationships with so many countries, was a repeated focus of Clinton's remarks.

"And as we see with what's going on today, recent events in Egypt and certainly in that broader region remind us all how crucial it is to have top-notch leadership on the ground and how quickly that ground can shift under our feet," Clinton said, noting that U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey could not attend.

State Department Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills also addressed the ambassadors, who were scheduled on Wednesday to also hear from Joints Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, Ambassador at Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer, and Special Representative for Global Partnerships Kris Balderston. Special Advisor Alec Ross and Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale will meet with the group later this week.

Clinton said the State Department will release a fiscal 2012 budget request next month that represents "a lean budget for lean times." State doesn't even know yet what its fiscal 2011 funding will be and the House is looking to cut diplomacy and development funding just as the civilian missions in Afghanistan and Iraq are expanding, she said.

Clinton asked all the ambassadors to find ways to save money and to use their meetings with lawmakers to advocate for robust funding for diplomacy and development next year.

"We know that there are those in the Congress who have even advocated eliminating all foreign aid, eliminating AID, and it's going to take some outreach and education to discuss with them and lead them through our rationale," Clinton told the ambassadors. "But I and we need to be in a position where we can say, 'Look, we hear you.'"

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The Cable

White House keeps press away from New START ceremony amid Egypt crisis

President Barack Obama signed the New START nuclear reductions pact with Russia today at the White House, but no remarks were made and no reporters were allowed into the room.

The White House allowed only still photographs of the signing ceremony, which was attended by Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Richard Lugar (R-IN), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Bob Casey (D-PA), Scott Brown (R-MA), and Mike Johanns (R-NE) were invited, but unable to attend.

The private signing ceremony stood in stark contrast to the deluge of high-level publicity the administration gave to the drive to ratify New START, which included press events, speeches, and the like by everybody from President Obama on down through his administration. The White House did not respond to a question about whether the ceremony was closed because of the ongoing crisis in Egypt, but the White House Correspondents Association believes it was only the latest White House maneuver to keep senior officials away from the press as Egypt events unfold.

The WHCA wrote to spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday to complain about the decision.

"On behalf of the White House Correspondents Association we are writing to protest in the strongest possible terms the White House's decision to close the President's Cabinet meeting on Tuesday and his signing of the START Treaty today to the full press pool," the WHCA Board wrote. "The START treaty was held up as one of the President's most important foreign policy priorities for almost a year dating back to the trip to Prague last spring."

The White House press corps, which has had a rocky relationship with Gibbs for a long time, sees this as the latest example of the White House failing to provide the media with regular access to officials and information since the beginning of the Egypt crisis.

"Prior to the President's statement Tuesday night, the press corps had not received a substantive update from the White House all day on the situation in Egypt. In addition, the press corps did not have an on-camera briefing, or an off-camera gaggle, with you yesterday to ask the White House about its decision-making process during this major foreign policy crisis," the WHCA board wrote. "Now for two straight days the full press pool is being shut out of events that have typically been open and provided opportunities [to] try to ask the President a question."

Clinton will exchange the articles of ratification for New START with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Feb. 5 in Munich, after which the treaty will officially enter into force.

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