The Cable

Clinton: Debt debate is hurting America’s ability to lead

The recent debt ceiling debacle and Congress's threat to force a default has hurt America's standing and credibility as a world leader, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today.

Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta appeared at a joint event this morning at the National Defense University, moderated by the George Washington University's Frank Sesno. Their discussion focused on the future of the national security budget, but also touched on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and the fight inside Washington over America's fiscal future.

When asked directly about the recent debt debate, Clinton referred to her recent trip to Hong Kong, where she assured world leaders that the United States always eventually deal with its internal challenges -- after exhausting all other options. But she said the episode had a negative effect on U.S. international leadership.

"It does cast a pall over our ability to project the kind of security interests that are in America's interests," she said. "This is not about the Defense Department or the State Department or USAID. This is about the United States of America. And we need to have a responsible conversation about how we are going to prepare ourselves for the future."

She then went on to defend national security spending, particularly as it relates to diplomacy and development, linking it to the U.S. rivalry with China.

"We can't be abruptly pulling back or pulling out when we know we face some long-term challenges about how we're going to cope with what the rise of China means," Clinton argued.

Vice President Joe Biden is on his way to China this week and officials previewing the trip said he will  defend the debt deal during his visit there.

Clinton and Panetta's event seemed designed to project a unified front between the Obama administration's top foreign policy officials ahead of the looming budget battle, where caps in discretionary spending mandated in the debt deal could result in huge cuts for the State Department and USAID.

"We know we are going to have to put everything on the table. I'm not saying we should be exempt ... I'm just saying that as we look at everything that is on the table, we have to try to do a reasonable analysis of what our needs and interests are," Clinton said.

"If you go out to the American public and you say ‘what's the easiest thing to cut?' it's always foreign aid," Clinton said. "We understand that we have a case to make and there is a new way of looking at it."

Panetta expressed general support for a holistic approach toward a national security budget that includes defense, diplomacy, and development. But he didn't go as far as his predecessor, Robert Gates, in advocating a rebalancing of budget priorities away from the Pentagon and toward the State Department.

"Our national security is our Defense Department and our military power and also our State Department and our diplomatic power," Panetta said. "We all know we are going to have to be able to exercise some fiscal restraint as we go through our budgets.... What I hope this committee doesn't do is walk away from its responsibility to look at the entire federal budget."

Panetta also repeated the administration's claim that the debt deal would cut $350 billion from the defense budget, a claim disputed by experts and top lawmakers. Panetta then warned that if the 12-person "supercommittee" fails to strike a deal to cut $1.5 trillion in spending by Thanksgiving, triggering an automatic $600 billion in addition defense cuts, it "would have devastating effects on our national defense."

"It would result in hollowing out the force. It would terribly weaken our ability to respond to the threats in the world. But more importantly, it would break faith with the troops and with their families," Panetta said. "And a volunteer army is absolutely essential to our national defense. Any kind of cut like that would literally undercut our ability to put together the kind of strong national defense we have today."

Regarding the State Department's budget, Panetta didn't advocate increases, but he did say it was "absolutely essential to our national security."

Panetta refused to comment on reports that the Pakistani military gave the Chinese military access to a downed U.S. helicopter that was used in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. He did say that they United States has no choice but to continue to work with Pakistan.

"They have relations with the Haqqanis... there's a relationship with the LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba].  And yet, there is no choice but to maintain a relationship with Pakistan. Why? Because we are fighting a war there, we are fighting al Qaeda there, and they do give us some cooperation in that effort," he said.

Clinton referred to the last scene of the movie Charlie Wilson's War, in which lawmakers decided not to fund civilian programs for Afghanistan after supporting the Afghan military resistance to the Soviet invasion. She said the Pakistanis have a similar view of the United States "that needs to be respected."

"They are partners, but they don't always see the world the way we see the world, and they don't always cooperate with us on what we think -- and I'll be very blunt about this -- is in their interests.," she said.

Clinton also said it was not important whether the Obama administration actually insists that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leaves power. There have been several reports that the administration was planning on announcing explicitly that the Syrian leader should leave, but then decided not to at the last minute.

"I'm not a big believer in arbitrary deadlines when you're dealing with a complicated situation," Clinton said. "It's not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go... If Turkey says it, if King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it."

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The Cable

Biden’s Asia itinerary revealed

Vice President Joe Biden heads to Northeast Asia today to meet with the man who could be the next president of China, take in some Mongolian culture, and then pay his respects to Japan, which is still recovering from the tsunami that hit the country in March.

Biden will spend four days in China, one day in Mongolia, and two days in Japan -- his first trip to Asia as vice president but his umpteenth visit as a U.S. political leader. He first traveled to China in 1979 as part of the first congressional delegation to visit after the United States and China normalized relations. The highlight of the visit will be his meeting with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to replace Hu Jintao as president sometime next year.

"One of the primary purposes of the trip is to get to know China's future leadership, to build a relationship with Vice President Xi, and to discuss with him and other Chinese leaders the full breadth of issues in the U.S.-China relationship," said Tony Blinken, Biden's national security advisor, in a conference call with reporters. "Simply put, we're investing in the future of the U.S.-China relationship."

On Thursday, Biden will have two meetings with Xi in Beijing and a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, followed by a formal banquet hosted by Xi in the evening. On Friday, Biden will have a roundtable discussion with U.S. and Chinese business leaders, followed by another meeting with Wen and a meeting with Hu.

Saturday, Biden will visit the U.S. embassy in Beijing to meet with the staff and spend some time with the new U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. He will then head off for the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan province, becoming the first U.S. political leader to visit the city. That night, Biden and Xi will visit a high school in Dujiangyan City that was rebuilt following the 2008 earthquake.

Sichuan province, which borders Tibet, is where two Tibetan monks set themselves on fire in recent days, to protest the Chinese government's policy of suppressing Tibetan culture and "reeducating" Tibetan spiritual leaders.

"I think the vice president can be expected to reinforce the message to the Chinese that there is great value in their renewing their dialogue with the representatives of the Dalai Lama, with the goal of peacefully resolving differences," said NSC Senior Director Danny Russel, who didn't comment directly on the recent protests.

One subject that Biden will be trying to avoid in China is the matter of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Reports yesterday said that a Pentagon team traveled to Taiwan to deliver the message that the United States will not be selling the Taipei the new F-16 C/D model fighter planes it wants, but would be willing to sell upgrades for its older A/B models.

"I think it's important to make clear that on the issue of Taiwan that the vice president has no plans to raise the Taiwan issue, certainly not arms sales during his trip.  He is not going to China to address that issue," Russel said.

Of course, it's extremely likely that the Chinese will raise it, and will want to know the details of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's promise to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) that the administration would announce its decision on Taiwan arms sales by Oct. 1.

On Aug. 22, Biden goes to Mongolia, becoming the first No. 2 to visit there since Vice President Henry Wallace in 1944. Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj scored a visit to the Oval Office in June. Biden will meet with him, as well as Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold. Then, the Mongolians will put on a cultural display that will include archery, wrestling, and horse racing.

Biden leaves for Tokyo that night and will spend two days in Japan, including a visit to the earthquake damaged city of Sendai. He will meet with the embattled Prime Minister Naoto Kan and visit with American troops.

The U.S. debt crisis will be one topic that will be on all Asian leaders' minds during Biden's trip. China and Japan are the top two holders of U.S. government debt, respectively. Lael Brainard, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for international affairs and the wife of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell, outlined Biden's message to Asia on America's debt.

"The vice president will be in a good position to talk about the very strong deficit reduction package that we concluded here recently. Obviously, the United States has the capacity, the will, and the commitment to tackle our major fiscal and economic challenges," she said.

But Biden will also carry the message that China has to stop depending on its trade imbalance with the United States to feed its ever growing economy.

"I think as we move forward on addressing our fiscal challenges, Chinese policy makers know that they can no longer count on the U.S. consumer to provide that demand to the global economy," she said.

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