The Cable

Panetta: Iraq is ready to protect itself

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave a full-throated defense Tuesday of the Obama administration's decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq by year's end, claiming Iraq is ready to defend itself.

"I believe Iraq is ready to handle security without a significant U.S. military footprint," Panetta testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to prepared remarks obtained by The Cable.

Panetta emphasized that the Obama administration was committed to fulfilling the terms of the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by President George W. Bush's administration, and he said that low levels of violence in Iraq showed Iraq's readiness to maintain its own security without a significant U.S. presence.

"As the Iraqis have assumed security control, the level of violence has decreased significantly and stayed at historic lows," Panetta testified. "To be sure, Iraq faces a host of remaining challenges, but I believe Iraq is equipped to deal with them. 

Panetta did acknowledge that Iraq will still have to contend with periodic attacks by al Qaeda, internal political divisions, challenges in securing its own borders, and the threat of Iranian meddling. But he downplayed Iran's ability to influence Iraq's future.

"And while we have only strengthened our regional security relationships in recent years, Iran's destabilizing activities have only further isolated the regime," Panetta said. "So as we mark a new phase in our enduring partnership with Iraq, Iran is more likely than ever to be marginalized in the region and in its ability to influence the Iraqi political process."

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testified that the United States and Iraq will have a "normal" military-to-military relationship following the exit of U.S. troops, which will be managed by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad's Office of Security Cooperation.

"This departure does not mark the end of our military-to-military relationship with Iraq, but rather the transition toward a normal one," Dempsey said, according to prepared remarks. "It will make our diplomats the face of the United States in Iraq. It will clearly signal the full assumption of security responsibilities by the forces, the leaders, and the people of Iraq. It creates an opportunity that is theirs to seize."

Several senators on the panel have been critical of the Obama administration's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by year's end, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). They are sure to press Panetta and Dempsey to provide details about the negotiations conducted over the summer to extend the U.S. troops presence in Iraq and why they didn't succeed.

The White House has maintained that withdrawing all troops from Iraq was a "core principle" of its policy, and that the administration never advocated for a troop extension but rather was open to an Iraqi request for one, which never materialized.

But Panetta seemed to support a troop extension several times in public statements. In July, Panetta urged Iraqi leaders to, "Dammit, make a decision" about the U.S. troop extension. In August, he told reporters that, "My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes.'" On Oct. 17, he was still pushing for the extension and said, "At the present time I'm not discouraged because we're still in negotiations with the Iraqis."

The second panel to appear before the committee will include Brett McGurk, the man who negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement in 2008 and who was brought back by the Obama administration to negotiate the possible extension this year.

The senators will press McGurk to give details about whether the administration actually proposed an Iraq troop extension. They will also seek to have McGurk admit that in 2008, there was an expectation that U.S. troops would be extended to stay in Iraq past 2011, as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Cable earlier this month.

McCain and Graham are also likely to press Panetta and Dempsey on the negative effects that would befall the military if the super committee fails to strike a deal by Nov. 23, triggering a "sequestration" mechanism that would automatically cut $600 billion from the defense budget over the next ten years.

Panetta wrote to McCain and Graham on Monday to warn them that, if the defense trigger is pulled, the military would have to furlough workers, delay major weapons programs, and cut training. "The severe disruption in the base budget would have adverse effect on our ability to support the Afghan war," Panetta said, adding that such a move would "undermine our ability to meet our national security objectives and require a significant revision to our defense strategy. "

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The Cable

“Minibus” bill held hostage over Cuba provisions

The Senate is almost set to consider a three-bill spending package that includes all the funding for the State Department and foreign operations, but two senators are refusing to go along because of language related to Cuba.

The Senate was stalled on Monday evening as senators started debate on the energy and water appropriations bill, which Senate Democratic leaders want to combine with the State and foreign ops and financial services appropriations bills into a miniature omnibus measure that's affectionately known on the Hill as a "minibus." By packaging three bills together, the Senate hopes to be able to get more work done faster. However, two senators won't let that happen until their concerns about language allowing U.S. banks to do business in Cuba are addressed.

"There is concern among a group of senators on both sides of the aisle with longstanding concerns for human rights and democracy in Cuba with regard to the loosening of restrictions on Cuba in the financial services bill," a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable Monday afternoon. "If that language was taken out, those senators would drop their objection to bringing up foreign ops for consideration."

Procedurally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has already brought up the energy and water appropriations bill and wants to add the other two bills (state/foreign ops and financial services) as an amendment. But Reid needs unanimous consent in order to do that without a lengthy cloture process, and we're told by Senate sources that Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) are objecting.

"Senator Rubio is objecting to a provision in the bill that would allow Cuba to become the only country on the State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list with a general exception for access to U.S.-based financial institutions," Rubio's spokesman Alex Conant told The Cable. "Under Cuban law, the Castro regime has a monopoly on all banking, commerce and trade, so this amendment would allow Cuba's totalitarian regime to directly open corresponding accounts in U.S.-based financial institutions, and vice versa."

The senators don't have any problem with the State and foreign ops section of the minibus, but Reid's attempt at adding both bills as one amendment has embroiled them in the dispute.

We're told by Senate sources that Reid plans to bring up the amendment containing both the State and foreign ops and financial services bills anyway and call for a unanimous consent vote, forcing any senators who object to show their cards. When the objections are made, Reid will be ready with a new amendment that doesn't contain the disputed Cuba provisions, which is likely to achieve unanimous consent.

After all this plays out, the real debate over the State and foreign ops appropriations bill can begin. When that happens, which will probably be late Monday evening or early Tuesday, senators will begin offering a host of amendments to the State and foreign ops bill.

Sen. Orin Hatch (R-UT) has introduced an amendment that would reinstate a ban on U.S. funding for foreign organizations that even discuss abortion. The amendment's language is a version of what has been known since 1984 as the Mexico City policy, named for the city where President Ronald Reagan first announced it. It's been a partisan ping-pong issue ever since: President Bill Clinton rescinded the policy in 1993, President George W. Bush reinstated it in 2001, and President Barack Obama rescinded it again in 2009. Republicans have since been trying to restore the policy under the Obama administration.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) introduced an amendment that would bar any funding for the administration to negotiate a United Nations arms trade treaty if it "restricts the Second Amendment rights of United States citizens."

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is expected to introduce an amendment to mandate sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran in response to the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and in light of a new International Atomic Energy Agency report, which states that Iran has made significant progress toward constructing a nuclear weapon.

And Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) introduced an amendment late on Monday that would prevent the president from trying to get around a law barring U.S. funding for UNESCO. The United States automatically cut off contributions to UNESCO this month when the organization overwhelmingly voted to admit Palestine as a member.

"Despite our legal obligation to suspend funding ... there have been some discussions, some speculation, that it may be possible to find alternative ways to financially support U.N. agencies like UNESCO that have taken this step of admitting the Palestinians as a member," Coats said on the Senate floor late Monday.

"That would be a total mistake and I want to reiterate the fact that it would be a violation of the law. And so, therefore, I come to the floor today to introduce a bill that serves as an emphatic statement, restatement of that."

Several more amendments are expected on Tuesday in what should be a lively debate over foreign affairs funding, if and when the Senate gets around to it. Of course, the Senate action is just a precursor to the House-Senate conference over the bill, where all the final decisions are made behind closed doors.