The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Debt, Syria, Yemen, Israel, Mexico, Georgia

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 acting spokesman Mark Toner:

  • The U.S. will keep on incurring debt and the world will keep on buying it, Toner said in response to questions about the international impact of the first downgrading of U.S. credit in our nation's history. He referred to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's prediction that China will continue to be a strong investor in the United States and he tossed aside Chinese complaints about U.S. fiscal policy. "China's views are China's views," Toner said. "This president has called for substantial deficit reduction through -- both through long-term entitlement changes and revenues, through tax reform, as well as additional measures to spark jobs and strengthen the economy."
  • The State Department welcomes the announcement by Saudi Arabia that it is recalling its ambassador from Syria, but the U.S. has no plans to do so. "This is a choice by any sovereign nation whether to recall its ambassador. It clearly sends a message to the government," said Toner. "For our part, we've talked about this last week and continue to believe that Ambassador Ford is playing an important role on the ground, bearing witness to what's going on in Syria." Special Advisor Fred Hof is in Turkey today meeting with Turkish leaders one day ahead of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's trip to Damascus Tuesday. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan over the weekend.
  • Toner declined to deny a report in the Asharq Alawsat newspaper that the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein had persuaded injured Yemeni President Al Abdullah Saleh not to return to Yemen from Saudi Arabia, where he is recuperating. I can't get into the details of those conversations. But our position has not changed, speaking globally," said Toner. "We've called for an immediate peaceful and orderly transition and believe that's in the best interests of the Yemeni people. And we've also said that this is something that cannot wait until a decision is made regarding President Saleh's future; that we've got an acting president in place and they need to move towards this transition immediately."
  • State still can't figure out what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meant when he seemed to agree with President Obama that a negotiated peace should be based on 1967 borders with agreed swaps. "We really haven't gotten any clarity from his office. I would refer you to his office for clarity on what he said," said Toner. State has no comment on the Tel Aviv protests. Acting Special Envoy David Hale is scheduled to speak with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat this week.
  • The U.S. is widening its role in the Mexican drug war, as was reported in Sunday's New York Times¸ Toner confirmed. "The United States recognizes that we share with Mexico responsibility for meeting the challenge of these drug cartels. You know, we believe Mexico is making progress in this regard, and we're supporting them as they gather and use information about these criminal organizations," he said.
  • State is "deeply concerned" about the arrest and detention of Ales Belyatsky, Belarus' leading human rights activist, on charges of tax evasion and is calling for his release. "Belyatsky's arrest represents another unfortunate sign of Belarus' self-isolation and violation of international standards on democracy, human rights and the rule of law," Toner said. State is also still "concerned" about the arrest of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which Toner said, "raises questions about the application of the rule of law in Ukraine," but isn't outright calling for her to be let go for some reason.
  • Toner did not know whether the U.S. and North Korea have agreed to the exchange of letters between families separated by the Korean War, as was reported by South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
  • Dane Smith, the U.S. senior adviser for Darfur, departs Washington this evening en route to Geneva and to London. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell left for Australia today, where he will visit the Lowy Institute in Sydney before traveling to Perth to lead the U.S. delegation for the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue (AALD).
  • Today marks the 3-year anniversary of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and still there is no resolution because Russian troops still occupy the disputed territories of Abkhasia and South Ossetia. Toner reiterated the U.S. policy and declined to comment directly on Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's threat to annex South Ossetia. "We strongly support Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. We would specifically urge Russia to fulfill all of its obligations under the 2008 cease-fire agreement, including the withdrawal of its forces to pre-conflict positions and free access for humanitarian assistance to the territories," he said.

The Cable

South Korea ambassador nominee stalled in Senate

President Barack Obama's nominee for ambassador to South Korea is the latest State Department nominee to see his confirmation stalled by secret Senate holds.

Sung Kim, the administration's special envoy to the (defunct) six party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, was nominated to replace Kathleen Stephens as the U.S. envoy to Seoul last month. We've confirmed with three senior Senate aides that there is at least one hold on Kim's nomination.  We don't know which senator has placed the hold, but we're told that it relates to GOP concerns that the Obama administration is seeking a path toward reengagement with Pyongyang and is also considering providing food aid to North Korea. Special Representative Stephen Bosworth and Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Robert King led the delegation of U.S. officials who met with top North Korean leaders in New York late last month.

"As we have said from the beginning of these discussions, they are designed to explore the willingness of North Korea to take concrete and irreversible steps toward denuclearization. In that regard, these were constructive and business-like discussions," Bosworth said after two days of meetings with the DPRK delegation, which was led by North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan.

"The United States supports emergency humanitarian assistance to the people of North Korea in accordance with international standards for monitoring. Our humanitarian assistance is not linked to any political or security issues," the State Department said last week about the food aid situation, but also said that, "No additional aid has been requested at this time."

Seeing as how questions related to U.S. engagement with North Korea on nuclear issues nor consideration of food aid are likely to be resolved anytime soon, the path forward for Kim's confirmation remains unclear. The South Korean government, which is opposed to food aid and skeptical of engagement with the DPRK, nonetheless wants Kim confirmed as soon as possible. He would be the first Korean-American to lead the U.S. embassy in Seoul.

Meanwhile, some other top State and USAID nominees also face tough confirmation fights when Congress gets back from vacation next month. There was one hold lifted on Mara Rudman, the nominee to be USAID administrator for the Middle East, but now another hold has been placed on her nomination.

The nomination of Wendy Sherman, the president's choice for undersecretary of state for political affairs, is not ripe yet for a hold because she hasn't yet been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Her confirmation hearing was cancelled last week because senators couldn't be bothered to stick around after the debt ceiling vote. There are several GOP senators prepared to object to Sherman's confirmation, so that post could remain vacant quite a while.

GOP senators are prepared to demand that Sherman reveal her private clients as a partner at the strategy firm Albright-Stonebridge, which they suspect include Chinese state-owned companies. As of yet, there is no public evidence that Sherman worked on behalf of the Chinese.

Another State Department nomination on hold is Tom Countryman for assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN). Nominated last January, Countryman was approved by the SFRC last month and placed on the "hotline," which would allow his nomination to be approved quickly assuming there are no objections. The fact that he was not confirmed is a sure sign there is at least one senator opposed to him, making him the latest in the long line of State Department nominations stuck on Capitol Hill.