The Cable

State Department snubs the Elders

Former President Jimmy Carter and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari were hoping to visit the State Department this week to brief officials on their recent trip to North Korea, but nobody at the State Department was available to meet with them.

Carter and Ahtisaari, both Nobel Peace Prize laureates, had been eager to give their readout of their meetings in North Korea April 26 and 27 to U.S. officials and press their case for a resumption of food aid to the Hermit Kingdom. The two are members of the Elders, a group of senior figures who have been informally engaging with regimes that official governments won't deal with, in the hopes of finding pathways to peace. They traveled to North Korea last month with former Irish President Mary Robinson and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Bruntland. Other members of the Elders include Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

But no one at the State Department would meet with them, so the trip to Washington was cancelled.

"The trip was arranged at short notice and due to busy schedules and given everything else going on we were not able to arrange meetings at the right level," a spokesman for the Elders told The Cable. The State Department offered no comment on the situation.

The Chinese, however, had time for the Elders. They spent two days in Beijing April 24 and 25 and had dinner with foreign minister Yang Jiechi. Neither the North Korea nor South Korea leaders met with them, but they did get meetings with high level officials in both countries. Ahtisaari and Brundtland also had meetings in Brussels last week with President of the EU Herman Van Rompuy and several other EU officials.

But while the State Department might be too busy to hear from the Elders, your humble Cable guy has a bit more free time. Before the cancellation, The Cable had an exclusive interview with Ahtisaari, who at that time was very excited to brief State Department officials on his first visit to North Korea. He even held out hope for a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Ahtisaari called on the international community and the Obama administration to resume food aid to North Korea and to delink humanitarian assistance from political negotiations. He said the World Food Programme had better monitoring capabilities than before, better access, and there was less chance the DPRK would divert food aid to feed its military

He also called for the beginning of a political dialogue with the DPRK on all outstanding issues and said that the North Koreans were interested in both bilateral talks and discussing a return to the Six Party Talks on its nuclear program. Ahtisaari also said the Elders were told that Kim Jong Il was prepared to join a summit meeting with his south Korean counterpart, Lee Myong Bak.

"I'm not asking anyone to believe every word that the North says, but we have to take seriously when they say they are prepared to talk," Ahtisaari said. "How do you expect your present policy of not talking to solve any of the issues you presumably you want to be solved. I don't have any other answers but to sit and talk."

It's no secret at all that the Elders' trip to North Korea was viewed as extremely unhelpful by the governments both in Washington and Seoul. Chris Nelson reported on April 29 that Clinton reacted strongly when asked in a morning meeting if she wanted to meet with Carter. From the Nelson report:

The performance of President Carter and his delegation in N. Korea this week was either shameful or fatuous...or both...and exemplifies why Carter had no...zero...USG support going in, and even less coming out, per an alleged eye witness account of Sec. St. Clinton at the morning meeting the other day:

"Do you want to meet with Carter?"  Clinton is looking at papers, and just says "No."  Then she pauses, looks up and adds, "HELL no!!!"

Besides going to North Korea without any administration support, Carter alienated Washington's policy community when he declared at a Seoul press conference on April 28 that "to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people because of political or military issues not related is really indeed a human rights violation."

Former NSC Senior Director for Asia Victor Cha just happened to be in Seoul that day, staying in the same hotel as the Elders, and said that people in South Korea were very upset at Carter's remark.

"People who work on the food issue with North Korea know the very real problems of diversion to the military, and Carter's statement implied that China -- because it gives food unconditionally to North Korea -- is more of a human rights upholder in North Korea than the others, which was not well-received," Cha told The Cable.

Ahtisaari wouldn't say that he agreed with Carter's statement, but tried to explain the context.

"What he simply wanted to do was to make a dramatic appeal to everybody, because we have seen due to the political constraints there has been unwillingness to assist the North in a humanitarian way," he said. "It's totally unacceptable to mix politics with humanitarian assistance."

Ahtisaari criticized the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience," which basically amounts to focusing on ties with allies and not engaging North Korea until the regime admits guilt for recent violent attacks against the South and recommits to its promise to denuclearize.

"Your approach is not terribly trustworthy either, because if the other side says they are willing to discuss all outstanding issues, I say ‘let's test them.' The process has to start; this situation of simply talking past each other doesn't mean anything," Ahtisaari said.

"I have seen worse conflicts than this one, so start talking."

Meanwhile, there are reports that Ambassador Robert King, the special envoy for North Korean Human Rights, would visit North Korea next week, but at Tuesday's State Department briefing, spokesman Mark Toner said no decision had yet been made. Toner also said Ambassador Stephen Bosworth was in South Korea now discussing the food aid situation.

"Our position on food aid is entirely separate from any political decision we may make or any policy decision we may make vis-a-vis North Korea," Toner said. "Our food assistance program... is based on a credible, apolitical assessment of the needs and also autonomy over how that food assistance is delivered."

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The Cable

Victoria Nuland to be State Department spokesman

The Cable has confirmed that career Foreign Service officer Victoria "Toria" Nuland will soon be named as the State Department's top spokesperson, the latest in a string of promotions for senior career officers in Foggy Bottom.

Nuland's job will somewhat different than her predecessor P.J. Crowley, who resigned after making off-message comments criticizing the Defense Department's treatment of alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning. Unlike Crowley, Nuland will not be dual-hatted as assistant secretary of State for Public Affairs. Former National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer will be officially named to that job soon, a State Department official confirmed.

Hammer is also a career Foreign Service officer who was temporarily assigned to the NSC. He returned to State with another Foreign Service officer who spent time at the White House, Ben Chang. The arrangement will be a new one, where Nuland will conduct the daily briefings and be the point person on dealing with the press, while Hammer will manage the public affairs bureaucracy behind the scenes. We're told that space is being cleared out in the front office on the 6th floor of State Department headquarters that Nuland will soon call home.

"The FSO's run State," one State Department official said, noting the trend of giving career officers high-profile posts.

Nuland has had a long career in the Foreign Service, working for both Democratic and Republican administrations. She is now the special envoy for Conventional Armed Forces in Europe; during the George W. Bush administration, she was the U.S. ambassador to NATO, and before that the principal deputy foreign policy advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

During the first term of Bill Clinton's administration, she was chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and then moved on to serve as deputy director for former Soviet Union affairs.

In an interview, Talbott, now president of the Brookings Institution, praised Nuland as a consummate professional who proved that Foreign Service officers could be trusted to put professionalism over politics.

"Her appointment demonstrates that Secretary Clinton has, quite rightly, an extremely high estimation of the value and confidence in the Foreign Service," Talbott said, "The more use that's made of the foreign policy civil service and the Foreign Service, the better."

He noted Nuland's public role as the U.S. envoy to NATO as evidence she can handle the spotlight and highlighted her roles across several administrations as evidence of her apolitical nature.

"She has a high degree of self confidence and an absolute dedication to working for the administration she is working for, whatever administration that is," Talbot said.

Several State Department officials noted that career civil servants and career Foreign Service officers are on the rise at State. The clearest example is the promotion of Bill Burns to the position of deputy secretary, making him the first career officer to fill that post since Walter Stoessel in 1982.

Burns's replacement for the post of undersecretary of State for Political Affairs is also expected to be a career Foreign Service officer. The smart money is on recently departed Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson, although our sources insist that two others are still under consideration -- former State Department counselor Wendy Sherman and Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens.

Nuland is married to Washington Post columnist Bob Kagan and is the daughter of Yale professor Sherwin B. Nuland. The announcement of her new role is expected this week.

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