The Cable

Ford: New congressional Syria sanctions probably won’t have impact

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the single senator that attended his confirmation hearing today that while the administration's sanctions on the Syrian regime are working, newly proposed congressional sanctions probably won't do much good.

Ford, who was sent to Damascus under a recess appointment because he could not be confirmed last year, was back in Washington for one more confirmation push before his recess appointment expires on Dec. 31. The U.S. envoy was expected to face harsh criticism from a number of GOP senators who believe the Obama administration has not been tough enough on regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But after the debt ceiling vote was done, most lawmakers patted themselves on the back and immediately skipped town. Only Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) was left by the time Ford's hearing begun.

Ford played it cautiously for most of Casey's questioning, repeating administration calls for a transition to democratic rule in Syria, condemning the brutality of the regime against its people, and praising the Syrian opposition while being clear-eyed about the challenges that the opposition faces.

"It's a diverse group, they're not very well organized. That's not surprising," Ford testified, explaining that he meets with opposition representatives constantly. "It's important for the Syrian opposition to develop their ideas, Syrian ideas, for their democratic transition."

Ford also joined the meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Syrian activists earlier today at the State Department.

"It's really important now to give these Syrians an ear and to amplify their voices," he said at the hearing. "My job is to help establish the space for Syrian activists ... to develop and organize the political transition that must occur if Syria is to be stable again."

When asked about the prospect of new congressional sanctions, Ford indicated that the bill introduced today by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), might not be the best way to put pressure on the Assad regime. Their bill would authorize President Barack Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.

"Unilaterally, additional American measures probably aren't going to have that big of an impact," said Ford. "The big companies working in the energy sector in Syria are from Europe or Syria's neighbors."

"We would look to find ways to with our partners to enhance our [existing] sanctions," he added, adding that those discussions are underway. "The challenge is getting targeting that works and really has an impact."

However, Ford did make a point to emphasize that the administration's Syria sanctions, which have designated several Syrian regime officials as targets for asset freezes, are effective. More such designations are expected in the coming days.

"The [administration's] sanctions do bite. We do see more business people slowly shifting sides, and that's important," he said. "So we do think sanctions are having an impact."

Clearly, the senators who sponsored the bill disagree with Ford's assessment that additional sanctions will not have an impact.

"The United States should impose crippling sanctions in response to the murder of civilians by troops under the orders of Syrian President Assad," Kirk said in a release. "The Arab Spring will sweep away this dictatorship, hopefully with the help of American sanctions similar to those leveled against the Iranian regime."

Kirk and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) have been among the most critical senators of the administration's approach to Syria. Both argue that Ford's presence there represents an unwise concession to the government. The Cable caught up with Kyl in the Senate hallways on Tuesday and asked him if he will try to thwart Ford's nomination.

"I don't have any plans with regard to his nomination," Kyl said.

We predicted that the senators on the committee might not show up for the hearing, so we caught some SFRC members earlier in the day to see where they stood on the administration's strategy of slowly but surely increasing pressure on the Assad regime.

"I think we do should everything we can to ratchet up our pressure on Syria," said SFRC member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). "The administration has made a series of good movements seeking to tighten the noose economically and anything we can do to enhance that will have my support."

 "I don't understand their Syria policy," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a SFRC member who is calling for a tougher administration stance. "I wish there was a little more clarity on it, I'm sorry there isn't."

At the hearing, Casey praised Ford and recounted reports of the Syrian authorities torturing children. He said that Assad "must step down" and that more can be done to pressure Syria in international bodies.

"Ambassador Ford's recent trip to Hama was a testament to his commitment to represent the values of the United States," Casey said.

Ford speculated that the members of the U.N. Security Council were now more ready than before to take action on Syria. He also said that while Hezbollah continues to support the Syrian government, the group has been silent recently due to the anger their pro-Assad statements aroused among the Syrian people.

On the core issue of whether Assad should go, Ford stuck with the administration's position that Assad has lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people, but stopped short of calling for him to step down now.

"Our conclusion is that this regime is unwilling or unable to lead the democratic transition the Syrian people are demanding," he said. "And there's really no difference between unwilling or unable as far as we're concerned."

Before Ford's hearing, half a dozen senators showed up for the confirmation hearings of two more sitting ambassadors who have to go through the process again because they received recess appointments: Ambassador to Turkey Frank Ricciardone and Ambassador to the Czech Republic Norm Eisen.

Wednesday's scheduled hearing for Wendy Sherman to become undersecretary of State for political affairs was outright cancelled because no senators were going to be there.

Ricciardone no longer has to worry about the complaints of now-retired Sen. Sam Brownback, but he still faces potential opposition from Kirk and Menendez. Kirk doesn't want the administration to make a missile defense deal with Turkey and Menendez wants the administration to refer to the destruction of the Armenian population during and after World War I as "genocide."

Eisen, who left his post as White House ethics czar in August 2010, was held up last year by Finance Committee ranking Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) over alleged actions and misrepresentations related to the June 2009 removal of Gerald Walpin as inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Eisen said that representing the United States in the Czech Republic had special meaning for him, because his mother was born there but was forced to flee due to Nazi persecution. Lieberman, who is not on the committee, showed up to introduce Eisen and commended those in attendance for not being part of the "the herd of senators who fled town after the vote."

The Cable

Levin and McCain: We have no idea how much debt deal cuts defense

The two heads of the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Cable today that even they have no idea how much the debt ceiling deal will cut from national defense, because the specifics of the cuts are still unknown.

Depending on which reports you read today, the bill to raise the debt ceiling and cut at least $2.1 trillion from the budget over the next decade, is either a huge win for the Pentagon or a dangerous cut to the military budget that will "sap American military might worldwide." The Cable reported yesterday that the White House's assertion that the bill puts the nation on track to save $350 billion in defense spending over 10 years was just a guess, considering that the bill doesn't say anything about "defense" cuts. The bill only sets caps on "security" spending, which includes Defense, State, USAID, intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Today, Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) both told The Cable that the actual effect of the debt deal on the Pentagon will be determined by budget and appropriations lawmakers in both chambers after Congress returns from its one-month summer recess.

"I don't know where the White House gets the $350 billion number from," said Levin, confirming that the deal only sets caps for the "security" budget and then only for the first two years. Levin said he does expect "significant" cuts to the military budget, but that he has to wait for allocations to come from Senate budget leaders to determine how much the Pentagon will get in fiscal 2012.

When Levin gets that figure, he will then have to rewrite the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill to adjust for the new allocations. He is also waiting for the appropriators to weigh in, he said. And while there's little chance the Senate will actually pass an appropriations bill before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, it will nevertheless be lawmakers who decide exactly what gets cut and by how much.

"There will be a negative and deep effect on the military if the cuts happen," Levin said, but added that the amount of defense cuts is currently "unknown."

If the new joint committee established to agree on an additional $1.2 trillion of cuts fails to come to terms, the bill mandates that $600 billion in cuts come directly from the "defense" account. But that's a fight for another day, Levin said.

When asked how much the debt deal cuts the Pentagon budget, McCain said, "I'm not sure."

"There are some reductions but it's my understanding they were spread out over a number of accounts," he said.

Multiple Hill sources told The Cable that it was House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) who led the push for the cuts to be spread over several "security" accounts, rather than focusing them solely on defense. McKeon convened a meeting of disgruntled committee members Monday morning, and then met with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) on Monday afternoon to urge lawmakers to protect the defense budget.

By spreading the initial cuts over security agencies, defense hawks hope to minimize the impact of any cuts on the Pentagon. Ironically, their strategy hinges on embracing the concept what heretofore has been the Obama administration's definition of "security," which includes diplomacy, intelligence, veterans affairs, homeland security, and foreign aid. Republicans have traditionally defined "security" as only defense, intelligence, and the Department of Homeland Security.

An administration official told The Cable on Monday that the administration calculates that the bill will save $420 billion over 10 years in overall security spending, with $350 billion of that coming from defense and the rest spread out over other agencies. But the administration official admitted those specifics are not in the bill.

That $420 billion is a replacement for the $400 billion in security spending cuts that Obama called for only a couple of months ago, so military spending expectations in the defense industry probably won't change much. But there are no details on that plan either, so it's impossible to know what the effects will be.

Winslow Wheeler, head of the Strauss Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, said that the whole notion of the cuts is misleading anyway, because the numbers are being compared projections that were inaccurate in the first place.

"There will be reductions ... but the actual figure is also masked by the fact that the debt deal is compared to a ten year CBO ‘baseline,' which is [the fiscal] 2011 spending levels adjusted according to arcane rules and inflated by a highly unreliable projection of long term future inflation," he said.

"The debt deal kicks the defense budget can down the road for this and future Congresses. People should not read precision and certainty into a political deal specifically designed to be uncertain and indistinct."

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