The Cable

Clinton's policy planning director on 2012 foreign policy priorities

The State Department has a new program to give journalists in foreign countries access to senior officials through live web conversations, and the official in the hot seat on Tuesday was none other than Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, who laid out the administration's foreign policy priorities for 2012.

Jake sat down with anchor and State Department employee Holly Jensen to field questions submitted in an invite-only web-based press conference called LiveAtState run by the Bureau of Public Affairs' Office of International Media Engagement  (IME). Past briefers have included State Department Innovation Advisor Alec Ross, Deputy Assistant Secretary Tamara Wittes, and U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz. Sullivan's appearance yesterday fits nicely into State's 21st Century Statecraft month.

 The briefing was only viewable to those foreign journalists that participated, but The Cable sat in on the taping.

Sullivan said that one of the main items on the administration's foreign-policy agenda was "to shift from a decade of war and a focus on threats, which by necessity the last 10 years were mostly about, to a decade of opportunities."

These opportunities, according to Sullivan, include efforts "to help support democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa, opportunities to consolidate America's engagement as a Pacific power ... opportunities to deepen partnerships in our own hemisphere as we head into the Summit of the Americas in April of 2012, and opportunities to drive a development agenda alongside our diplomacy agenda that gets to issues like health and food and climate so that we are creating better chances for people across the world."

Here are some excerpts of Sullivan talking about the 2012 road ahead for U.S. foreign policy in several other countries, after the jump:

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

With respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we are heartened by what we have seen over the course of the past few weeks with the Jordanian initiative to help broker direct face-to-face contacts between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, where they can sit and actually discuss the real issues of the conflict, starting with territory and security.  And we would like to see that process continue.  Indeed, we'd like to see it grow into a sustained and systematic negotiating process that takes on all of the permanent status issues that have divided the parties and kept peace elusive for all this time.

And so the combination of the political efforts and the state and institution building efforts that we are supporting is something that will remain a top priority for us in 2012.  This is not to say that it's going to be easy.  It won't. 

On Iran:

Well, our long-term goal with respect to Iran is quite straightforward in terms of how we state it.  It's not as straightforward in terms of getting there.  It is to, ultimately -- after Iran has fulfilled its obligations -- welcome the people of Iran back into the international community as full participants.  That is what the President and the Secretary have said since the start of this Administration.  We would like to see Iran with a future that is as bright as - and as potent as the history of its great ancient civilization.   

Now, in order to get from where we are today to there requires Iran to take steps to come into compliance with its international obligations.  That goes for its nuclear program.  That goes for its sponsorship of terrorism and violence and its efforts to destabilize actors in the region.  And in that regard, the question of Iran and Afghanistan and Iran and Iraq comes into play.  We look to Iran to take steps to ensure that they are not engaging in activities in either Afghanistan or Iraq that attempt to destabilize or advance an agenda of violence or attempt to thwart the democratic aspirations of the people of those countries. 

On China:

We are looking ahead, just in a few weeks time, to the visit - the return visit - of Vice President Xi [Jinping] who will come to Washington and then go out to the American heartland to Iowa.  I'm actually from Minnesota myself, which is a state that borders Iowa to the north, so we're going to be pleased to welcome the vice president to see, once again, life in the American Midwest and the values that the people of the heartland reflect in their daily lives.  And then he'll go out to Los Angeles.

And that visit will be an important opportunity for us to both take stock of the progress we've made, to address some of the differences that remain between us, and to look forward to an action-oriented period of cooperation on significant issues... And we will also be clear along the way that we continue to have concerns about human rights in China and that we believe that, for China's future, it is in the best interests of all of the people of China for the government to pursue a path of increasing respect for human rights and for political reform.

On missile defense cooperation with Russia:

So we do believe very much that missile defense cooperation ... will be in the long-term best interests of our own countries and of regional peace and security.  And that is really, I think, what underlies Under Secretary [Ellen] Tauscher's observation that we have been in an intense dialogue with the Russian Government about how we might work together.  That dialogue has existed at every level, including at the level of President [Barack] Obama and President [Dmitry] Medvedev.  And we would like to see 2012 as a year where we could make progress on this issue, where we could deepen understanding, where we could find ways to work together on questions related to missile defense, where we could ensure that there is transparency and understanding on both sides of what we are seeking to achieve and how we are seeking to achieve it.

On Pakistan:

The stakes in this are very high.  We believe very much that cooperation between the United States and Pakistan on a broad range of issues is fundamentally in the interests of our two countries.  And that's not just true in the counterterrorism space, although that's very important.  It's also true in the way that the United States and the international community can support the democratically elected government of Pakistan and can support an economic program over time that will lead to growth and economic stability in Pakistan so that it does not face the kinds of challenges it has faced in the past.

So we will see over the course of the next several weeks an intensive period of work to deal with the very real issues that continue to exist between the United States and Pakistan in our relationship, and we're going to try to do that in a straightforward way and we're going to try to do it in a way that keeps our eye on the long game.  And hopefully, the Pakistanis will do the same.  And in the long game, the United States and Pakistan have much more to gain through cooperation than through any other dynamic that might emerge in our relationship.

Ben Chang/State Department

The Cable

GOP has different plans to avoid defense 'trigger'

Defense budgeting has been even more convoluted and politicized than usual this year, mostly because of the looming $600 billion in mandatory defense cuts over ten years, known as the "trigger" or "sequestration." Republicans in Congress are pledging to stop the trigger, but there are different competing plans on how to do so.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Cable Tuesday in an interview that he is only days away from unveiling his proposal to roll back the required defense cuts that are mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, signed by President Barack Obama last August. The trigger, which also mandates $600 billion in cuts to Medicaid, was set into motion by the November failure of the congressional bipartisan "supercommittee" to strike a deal to reduce the federal budget by $1.2 trillion over the same period.  The cuts are scheduled to go into effect in January 2013.

The only other legislation that has been introduced to avoid sequestration besides McCain's forthcoming proposal is the bill by House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), which would delay sequestration for both defense and entitlements for one year by reducing the federal workforce through attrition - saving money by not allowing agencies to replace workers -- over the next decade. McKeon's plan would save the approximately $120 billion needed to delay the implementation of sequestration from January 2013 until January 2014.

McCain told The Cable that McKeon's proposal was "not good." McCain said his own plan will only protect the defense budget, not entitlements, from sequestration for one year. McCain said he is also working on another plan to roll back the $460 billion of defense cuts over ten years that the Obama administration announced last April and that are being incorporated into the administration's fiscal 2013 budget request, coming next month.

"We're going to work on a one-year plan for just defense, to start with," McCain said. "We're working on one proposal to avoid sequestration. We're working on another proposal specifically on the $460 billion that's going into effect this year."

Meanwhile, the GOP House leadership has yet to endorse either the McCain or the McKeon ideas. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) told reporters Monday that he had wanted to undo the entire 10 years of defense cuts, but would consider tackling the defense cuts for one year if that's the only possibility. Some on Capitol Hill see that as Cantor moving toward the McKeon bill.

"So if ten years is a problem, then let's go back and maybe we can find one year's worth of pay for that can at least stave off the sequester from being implemented Jan. 1, 2013, so that maybe we can have this election take place and be able to avoid it," Cantor said. "I just think the defense of this country is a priority. It is the priority."

Part of the confusion over what to do about the trigger relates to the statement Obama made on the day the supercommittee failed to reach a deal.

"I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one," Obama declared. "The only way these spending cuts will not take place is if Congress gets back to work to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion [over ten years]. They've still got a year to figure it out."

Many on Capitol Hill view that statement as an indication the administration won't accept efforts to bypass the trigger that only addresses the defense half of the equation.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) has his own idea on how to stave off the deep cuts to both defense and entitlements -- raise taxes.

"We should do something intelligent, which means establish priorities for any reductions but most importantly focus on revenues," Levin told The Cable today. "You've got to have revenues."

But isn't the GOP refusal to raise revenues (read = taxes) the whole reason the supercommittee failed in the first place, we asked Levin? Why does he think it's possible to do it now, in an election year?

"I think the Republicans are going to realize that the public wants fairness in the tax code, they want upper income folks to have their rates restored," Levin said.

While lawmakers decide how to stave off the sequestration cuts, the administration is battling internally over the budget release. Two sources told us that the Pentagon isn't happy about the White House's decision to delay the release of its fiscal 2013 budget request one week, from Feb. 6 to Feb. 13.

The Pentagon is going forward with its plan to preview selected parts of its budget to the public on Thursday, and lawmakers will get special briefings tonight.  

Of course, all these discussions could be moot if Congress again fails to pass any appropriations bills in the run-up to the elections in November, as it did in 2010. And after the election, the entire situation could change again... especially if a Republican takes the White House.

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