The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Israel, Sudan

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. These are the highlights of Thursday's briefing by spokesman Victoria Nuland:

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to go on a Caribbean and Latin American adventure. Next Wednesday, June 22nd, she will travel to Guatemala City, to participate in the international conference of support for the Central American security strategy, after which she will go to Jamaica!
  • On the announcement by al Qaeda that Ayman al-Zawahiri will be their new leader, Nuland said, "It barely matters who runs al-Qaida, because al- Qaida is a bankrupt ideology. If you look around the world, the peaceful movements for change around the world have done far more for Muslim people than al-Qaida has ever produced." The White House called him an "armchair general" and "soft."
  • No real comment on the news that the Pakistanis have arrested several informants who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden and no real comment on the reports that Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is under pressure to jettison his close ties to Washington. "I think it's not a secret that our relationship with Pakistan is complex, that's it's not easy, that we have our challenges," said Nuland. "The U.S. has a profound national interest in working with Pakistan on terrorism, on extremism, on promoting democracy and stability and prosperity, not only in Pakistan but throughout the region. So it's important that we keep at it, and we're planning to keep at it."
  • On Libya, Nuland said that the pressure on Col. Muammar al Qaddafi was having an effect and she noted "that over 50 senior-level diplomatic officials and members of the government have defected, including the minister for foreign affairs." She didn't note that former minister for foreign affairs Musa Kusa regrets his defection and now is ignoring the West from his hideout in Doha, but anyway, she said about Qaddafi: "The guy is getting increasingly lonely, increasingly isolated. His days are numbered." She didn't say how high that number might be.
  • Responding to reports that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will address his nation, Nuland called the actions of his government "revolting" and called again for a halt to the violence. "Several weeks ago, President Obama, echoed repeatedly by the secretary, gave Assad a choice: reform or get out of the way. And increasingly, he appears to have made his choice," she said. "Rather than playing a positive role, under Assad, Syria has increasingly become a source of instability in the region."
  • Nuland said the State Department wasn't aware of any prospects of returning to P5+1 talks with Iran, despite some rumblings to that effect coming from Russia. "I don't believe we have heard about any new feelers from Iran along those lines... Iran knows very clearly what it needs to do to come back into the good graces of the international community," she said.
  • Acting Special Envoy David Hale and NSC Senior Director Dennis Ross are in the Middle East and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molho, and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  Hale also met with President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "The position of the United States on Israeli settlements has not changed and will not change," the State Department said in a statement e-mailed to reporters after the briefing. "Like every American administration for decades, we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity. President Obama's recent speech offered our views on the way forward."
  • China is accepting Sudanese President and indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir this week as violence in the disputed region of Abyei threatens the North-South peace agreement. "China shares our interest in peace in Sudan. So it is our hope that, in welcoming Bashir, they are going to make the same points that the international community have been making to both sides, frankly," Nuland said. But isn't China just in it for the oil? "It's hard to have money and oil when there's no peace," she responded.

The Cable

Code Pink stages pro-Gaza rally at State Dept.

Code Pink, the left-wing, anti-war group that made themselves famous by heckling senior officials at committee hearings, took their show on the road to Foggy Bottom on Thursday on behalf of activists planning to launch a flotilla to Gaza.

The American ship Audacity of Hope, part of the Freedom Flotilla II, will depart from Greece with 50 passengers in late June headed for Gaza. In total, the flotilla will include roughly ten boats carrying 1,000 passengers, and will set sail on June 25. They are billing their voyage as a sequel to the Freedom Flotilla, which was intercepted by Israeli authorities on its way to Gaza last May in an incident that resulted in nine deaths.

Code Pink staged a small press conference on Thursday morning outside the State Department's C Street entrance that featured speeches by Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin, who will be a passenger on the flotilla, former CIA analyst and passenger Ray McGovern , activist and flotilla passenger Missy Lane, Palestinian-American lawyer Noura Erekat, and Gazan activist Amer Shurrab.

This year's flotilla occurs in a drastically altered atmosphere as compared to last year's. The Israelis have eased restrictions on some goods and Egypt has opened up the Rafah Crossing. Regardless, the activists at the State Department stressed that the people of Gaza still live under harsh conditions and need international advocacy.

Benjamin, naturally dressed all in pink, said she is hoping that the American presence aboard the flotilla will lessen the risk of a violent encounter with the Israel Defense Forces, and called on the State Department to express its support.

"We, as Americans, who are going on the boat that is a U.S. flag ship, that is carrying U.S. passengers...this is the time for our State Department to come forward and say ‘we recognize our responsibility to U.S. citizens and we will put pressure on the Israeli government to make sure that no harm comes to our citizens,'" she said.

McGovern, who donned an "Audacity of Hope Flotilla" t-shirt and a Palestine rubber bracelet (not exactly the attire he wore for 27 years at the CIA) invoked his time in the U.S. government to argue that the economic situation in Gaza -- a recent UN report said unemployment was near 50% -- was hurting the U.S. effort to combat international terrorism.

"As an intelligence analyst, I'm saying this is a national security problem. It's making the number of terrorists much longer in those long lines to be recruited by al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations," he said.

This was not McGovern's first encounter with the State Department in his capacity as an activist. He was arrested in February during a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at George Washington University when he silently stood with his back toward her and refused to follow instructions by security officers to sit down. He was dragged screaming out of the auditorium.

The turnout today was low, with only a handful of supporters showing up. The five activists held a poster of the nine flotilla passengers who died as a result of the skirmish on the last flotilla. State Department employees walked past the group of activists without so much as a second glance, in what one sympathetic observer said seemed like a metaphor for the broader apathy toward the situation in Gaza.

Sophia Jones / Foreign Policy