The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Sudan, Syria, Taliban talks, Saudi women driving

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

  • Nuland opened the briefing by welcoming the agreement signed by the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement to withdraw troops from the Abyei region and allow Ethiopian peacekeepers to enter. "This agreement is a very important first step, and we urge the parties to move quickly now to implement it and translate it into immediate concrete improvements in the security and humanitarian situation on the ground, including the swift deployment of the Ethiopian forces, so that we can amplify the peacekeeping force in Abyei," she said.
  • State was not impressed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's speech to his nation, where he blamed "saboteurs" for the violence sweeping his country and promised reforms. What's important now is action, not words," Nuland said. "We would also note in the speech he spends a lot of time blaming foreign instigators rather than appreciating that his own people are simply disgusted by the regime -- by a regime that supports itself through repression, corruption and fear." Ambassador Robert Ford will go to the northern border regions to investigate for himself. As for Assad's blame on "foreign instigators," Nuland said, "We're just not buying it." No word yet on a possible war crimes complaint against Assad at the International Criminal Court.
  • Nuland declined to expand on Defense Secretary Robert Gates' Sunday revelation that the U.S. government has had preliminary talks with the Taliban, led by the State Department. "Many countries have had these kinds of contacts. The United States has had some preliminary contacts, but that's as far as I'd like to go," she said, emphasizing that they are "very, very preliminary contacts."
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about the issue of women driving in her June 17 conversation with Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal and "The secretary has been engaged, as have others, in quiet diplomacy on this subject," Nuland said. The subject of Bahrain did not come up in the call and the U.S. is not pressing Saudi Arabia to remove its military presence from Bahrain. "Our view on the forces in Bahrain is that Bahrain as a sovereign state has a right to ask for support," she explained.
  • The Libyan Transitional National Council in Benghazi is running out of money, but Nuland said she is confident help is on the way, following pledges of support during a donors meeting in Abu Dahbi. After the briefing, State posted this statement on aid to the rebels, which touted the $25 million of non-lethal supplies the U.S. is providing. Nuland said State is waiting for the Senate to move legislation that would allow some of the $33 billion of Libyan frozen assets to go the rebels. "You know that we're working with the Congress on new legislation that would allow us to move some of these assets to the TNC. As I understand it, that legislation is still in the Senate," she said.
  • Acting Special Envoy David Hale and NSC Senior Director Dennis Ross are still in the Middle East and Hale met with Egyptian foreign minister Mohamed el-Orabi Monday night. More information on their trip will be released Tuesday, Nuland said.

The Cable

Berman and friends unveil bill to cut foreign aid to Lebanon

The fight over foreign aid to Lebanon may be reaching a tipping point due to the formation of a new Lebanese government that is dominated by the terrorist organization Hezbollah and its allies.

Congress has gone back and forth over whether to keep sending cash and equipment to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), particularly following a clash between the Israeli army and the LAF along the Israel-Lebanon border in August 2010 that left five people dead. Now Howard Berman (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is pushing a bill to end almost all U.S. assistance to Lebanon. He's joined by the top Lebanese-Americans in Congress, including Darrell Issa (R-CA), Charles Boustany (R-LA), and Nick Rahall (D-WV). 

His bill, the Hezbollah Anti-Terrorism Act (HATA), is modeled on Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act (PATA) that Congress passed after Hamas won the 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council.

"When there is essentially a government in Lebanon where a militia organization that has a political front and that is on our terrorist list is determining the nature of that government, the fundamental nature of Lebanon changes very much, from an election-based democracy into a different kind of country," Berman said in a Friday afternoon interview with The Cable.

"Under those situations, with limited exceptions, I don't think American taxpayers should be providing military or economic assistance to help Hezbollah maintain its grip on the government of Lebanon," he added.

Berman had put a hold on assistance to Lebanon last summer, but later allowed the money to go through because he wanted to strengthen the LAF in its internal struggle against Hezbollah. But now the situation is totally different and he won't back off, he said.

"The notion that the LAF will remain an island of independence under a government that is dominated and welded together by Hezbollah is a very different proposition," he said.

Berman's bill would still allow support for rule of law and democracy programs, educational funding, and even training of Lebanese forces in America under the IMET program. The president would also be able to waive restrictions in the law in cases that were deemed to be in the national security interests of the U.S.

His GOP counterpart, HFAC chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) is generally supportive of the idea and is considering supporting the bill, Berman said.

But what about the notion that Iran will be more than happy to make up any deficit caused by the withdrawal of U.S. aid?

"Iran has been supplying Hezbollah for years. This is not a fear, this is a reality. We have to respond to this reality and I think this is the way to do it," Berman said.

He released a summary of the legislation, which could come up as a free-standing bill or as an amendment to a larger piece of legislation.