The Cable

Clinton caves to Cornyn, Cornyn lifts hold on Burns

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants her new deputy, Bill Burns, confirmed so badly that she called Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) from India and gave in to his demands for a decision on Taiwan arms sales.

Clinton promised Cornyn that the administration would make a call on selling 66 new F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan and release the long overdue congressionally mandated report on Taiwan's air power capabilities. But there's a catch: The administration won't announce the decision and release the report until Oct. 1. But the promise of a decision was enough for Cornyn to lift his hold on Burns' nomination.

"Sen. Cornyn asked the administration to do two things: submit the late Taiwan airpower report and accept Taiwan's letter of request for new F-16C/D fighters," a Cornyn staffer told The Cable today. "Secretary Clinton indicated that on October 1st he would have both the report and an up-or-down decision on the F-16C/D sale, which was satisfactory to Sen. Cornyn."

We've been told by three sources that there was an emergency Principals Committee meeting at the White House on Taiwan arms sales last Friday. A fourth source flatly denied that the meeting took place. Either way, it's clear that there was some frantic administration discussion on this issue that led to the decision to meet Cornyn's demands.

The administration might ultimately say no to the sale of the new C and D models of the F-16 fighter jet, but offer the Taiwanese upgrade packages for their existing fleet of older A and B models. Or they could say yes to the new sales and the upgrades, or no to both options.

Why did Clinton choose the Oct. 1 date? Nobody knows for sure, but one piece of speculation is that it is well past Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Beijing in late August but still well before the November meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries in Honolulu in November. By making its decision then, some speculate that the administration may be trying to minimize the impact of any negative Chinese reaction to the moves.

Rupert J. Hammond-Chambers, the president of the U.S. Taiwan Business Council, told The Cable today that the fact that the report and the decision on new F-16 sales will be announced in October is an indicator that the administration is planning to say no to the new plane sales.

"It's good to know the administration will eventually make the decision on the F-16s. But by delivering the report at the same time as announcing the decision, they negate the importance and effectiveness of the report. And it seems likely that they won't announce a decision to sell Taiwan new F-16s only about a month before Hu Jintao is scheduled to come to the U.S." he said.  "We're just not that excited about the way this has played out."

If the answer is no on to new F-16 sales, expect the GOP to step in and criticize the administration for what they see as kowtowing to Chinese complaints.

"If and when the administration makes the wrong decision, we get to beat them up politically for letting China control U.S. arms sales," said a senior GOP Senate aide from another office.

Cornyn also wanted the administration to acknowledge Taiwan's official letter of request for the new planes, which Taipei has been trying to submit since 2006. But if the administration makes a decision on the sale, the letter requesting the sale becomes moot, congressional sources said.

But Burns's road to confirmation isn't in the clear. Sources say there is at least one more hold on his nomination that the State Department is working furiously to resolve. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) put the Burns nomination on the "Hotline" today, which means he will be confirmed if there are no objections. So if Burns isn't confirmed tonight, that will be a clear indication that not all senators' demands have been satisfied.

Burns is also scheduled to meet with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) next Tuesday, according to congressional sources, to discuss Kirk's concerns about Iran policy and U.S. plans to deploy missile defense radar in Turkey. If Kirk doesn't like what he hears, there could be yet another roadblock to Burns' confirmation.

The White House was also upset by a Wednesday report by Washington Times' columnist Bill Gertz, who blamed National Security Staff Director Evan Medeiros for delaying the F-16 sale decision, the Taiwan air power report, and a related report regarding the Chinese military. Gertz's story, which was sourced to unnamed GOP congressional staff members, alleged that Medeiros was at odds with Asia officials around the government.

"Bill Gertz is the most prolific fiction writer since J.K. Rowling," NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable. "This story has absolutely no basis in fact. Evan isn't holding up a single one of these items. Anyone who is even remotely informed about the process would know that. Unfortunately the anonymous officials cited in this article don't fall into that category."

UPDATE: The Cable regrets that we did not contact Gertz to give him the opportunity to respond to Vietor's assertion that his column was "fiction." Gertz e-mailed his response today, saying, "I stand by my reporting." 

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