The Cable

NATO chief: Intervention just won’t work in Syria

Not only will NATO not participate in any military intervention in Syria, NATO assets won't be used to deliver any military, humanitarian, or medical assistance there, according to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, because any type of Western intervention is not likely to help solve the crisis.

"We haven't had any discussions in NATO about a NATO role in Syria and I don't envision such a role for the alliance," Rasmussen told The Cable in an exclusive interview in Washington Wednesday. "Syria is ethnically, politically, religiously much more complicated than Libya. This is the reason why the right way forward is different. And I think a regional solution would be the right way forward with strong engagement by the Arab League."

But is order of difficulty the only criterion NATO uses to decide where and when to intervene, we asked Rasmussen? Does NATO feel any responsibility to protect civilians in Syria?

"The guiding question should be: Would it bring a sustainable solution to the problem if we decided to intervene, if we had the legal basis, if we had support from the region?" Rasmussen responded. Even if there was a U.N. mandate for intervention in Syria, the mission simply wouldn't have a high likelihood of success, he argued. "Syria is different."

No NATO member state has requested NATO begin contingency planning for Syria, and no contingency planning is happening, Rasmussen said. He also said NATO will not engage in arming the Syrian opposition. As for NATO member countries, such as France, Turkey, or the United States, "I take it for granted that all our allies on an individual basis will act within international law" regarding arming the rebels, he said.

Rasmussen also took the opportunity of his interview with The Cable to "clearly denounce" recent statements by Russia's once and future President Vladimir Putin, who lashed out against NATO and the United States and accused them of supporting a "string of armed conflicts" as part of a scheme to achieve "absolute invulnerability."

"Nobody has the right to hijack the prerogatives and powers of the U.N.," Putin said. "I am referring primarily to NATO, which seeks to assume a new role that goes beyond its status of a defensive alliance."

Rasmussen defended the NATO intervention in Libya, arguing it stayed within the U.N. mandate, and said the Afghanistan mission is also within its U.N. mandate.

"The core task of NATO is still territorial defense of our populations and our countries. But we also realize that in today's world, the territorial defense of our borders often starts beyond our borders," he said. "As a politician, I'm not surprised that during an election campaign you will see some sharpened statements" from Russia.

Rasmussen had a jam-packed agenda on this two-day visit to Washington, almost all of which was related to preparations for the May NATO summit in Chicago. He began Tuesday with a seminar organized by the NATO Allied Command-Transformation, where officials worked on a "defense package" to be adopted at the summit, which will implement the Rasmussen-supported concept of "smart defense"  -- i.e., doing more with less.

"The basic question is, in an environment of declining defense budgets, how can we assure that we have the necessary military capabilities in the future. To that end, we need a smarter way of spending defense money. And a smarter way of doing that is by going to the model of a multinational corporation instead of purely national solutions," Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen said the United States would increase its operational exercises with NATO countries, especially through the new NATO Response Force, to which the United States will contribute a rotational troop presence next year for the first time.

Rasmussen also had meetings with senior Obama administration officials, including a Tuesday evening dinner at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. He met with two senior senators, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Senate Armed Services member Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

One announcement that won't be made at the NATO summit is the alliance's intention to mark 2013 as the year when full, lead combat responsibility will be handed over from NATO to the Afghan security forces. That announcement was originally scheduled for the summit, but Panetta surprised his European and NATO colleagues by inelegantly announcing it on the plane to Brussels earlier this month.

That announcement was "not big news," according to Rasmussen, who pointed out that U.S. and NATO officials were quick to clarify that the 2013 milestone did not change the goal of transferring full control of all territory to the Afghan government by the end of 2014.

"The fact is that we stick to the timetable that we outlined in Lisbon in 2010, so in that there's nothing new," he said. "If we are to complete the transition by the end of 2014, then something may happen in 2013, but that's not an accelerated timetable. You might say that we tried to detail more in the last 18 months of this transition period."

One administration official told The Cable that the reason Panetta blurted out the 2013 milestone inarticulately and months ahead of the planned rollout was that he accidentally read his internal official talking points to reporters on the plane, instead of the talking points for the press. Rasmussen couldn't confirm that's what happened.

"I don't know about that," Rasmussen said. "You had many things up in the air at that time. But I think we clarified everything at the defense ministers' meeting (in Brussels)."

Rasmussen was accompanied in Washington by his new Deputy Secretary General Sandy Vershbow, the recently departed assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, who moved to Brussels and took up his new post two weeks ago without even taking a vacation in between jobs.

"It's quite historic that an American has the position as deputy secretary general," Rasmussen said. "Here you see America actually demonstrate a very clear political commitment to our alliance, which I strongly appreciate."

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The Cable

Nuke deal: State talks moratorium, North Korea talks food

The United States and North Korea have each issued statements about the results of last week's meetings in China, but the two sides seem to be reading from two different sheets of paper.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Glyn Davies and Special Envoy to the Six Party Talks Clifford Hart traveled to Beijing for meetings with top DPRK officials Feb. 23 and 24, including North Korea's top nuclear negotiator Kim Gye Gwan. These were the first U.S.-DPRK direct talks since the December death of Kim Jong Il. Today, the State Department sent out its statement on the meetings as well as the DPRK's official news agency's readout of what was agreed. Apparently, something was lost in translation, because the two readouts just don't match.

"[T]he DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities," the U.S. statement said. "The DPRK has also agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities."

Regarding the pending deal to give North Korea 240,000 tons of U.S. food assistance, the U.S. readout explained, "We have agreed to meet with the DPRK to finalize administrative details necessary to move forward with our proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance along with the intensive monitoring required for the delivery of such assistance."

The United States has always maintained that nuclear negotiations and food assistance were not linked and the Obama administration must appear it is not being lured into the time-honored tradition of what critics see as "bribing" North Korea to talk. But the State Department admitted last week that the food-assistance issue might come up during the nuclear talks, and in fact, it did.

The State Department didn't say anything meaningful about sanctions on North Korea in its statement, only promising to increase people-to-people exchanges in areas such as sports and pledging that "U.S. sanctions against the DPRK are not targeted against the livelihood of the DPRK people."

And what about Pyongyang's interpretation?

If you read the North Korean statement on the meetings, which hasn't yet been posted on the KCNA website but was sent around to reporters Wednesday morning, you would have a somewhat different idea of what happened in Beijing.

"The U.S. promised to offer 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance with the prospect of additional food assistance, for which both the DPRK and the U.S. would finalize the administrative details in the immediate future," the North Koreans said. "Once the six-party talks are resumed, priority will be given to the discussion of issues concerning the lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light water reactors."

The United States hasn't publicly discussed the idea of providing light-water nuclear reactors to North Korea since the KEDO project terminated its activity in 2006, due to what U.S. officials say is North Korea's failure to live up to the deal under which KEDO was begun.

As recently as Feb. 27, the State Department was insisting that no decision has been made on providing food assistance to North Korea, which is opposed by many in Congress.

"As they always do, the North Korean side also raised the nutritional assistance, so we did discuss that," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said about the Beijing meetings. "As you know, the United States does not link these issues. There's no deal to be had here. But we did continue to discuss the questions that the U.S. has with regard to need, with regard to how we might monitor nutritional assistance if we are to go forward with it. So no decisions have been made either on the six-party talks side or on the nutritional assistance side."

Former Pentagon Asia official Dan Blumenthal, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the confusion over the meeting was due to a lack of a clear strategy for achieving U.S. goals in North Korea beyond just scheduling more talks.

He also said that North Korea is never likely to give up its nuclear weapons, which is the stated U.S. goal, so the basis for the negotiations is flawed from the outset.

"The DPRK statement is just the public rhetoric part of their strategy, which is to get accepted by the U.S. and others as a nuclear power and meanwhile to extract other concessions that alleviate their economic problems," Blumenthal said.

But other analysts saw the deal as an incremental step forward and left open the possibility for real progress.

"These steps are modestly significant," said Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution. "They could indeed be an initial step on a path towards serious negotiations, negotiations that Pyongyang scuttled by its own actions. Or they could simply be a ploy to get nutritional assistance and meddle in South Korean politics. North Korea's record suggests the latter, but we shall see. I think it is safe to say that no one in Washington, Seoul, or Tokyo is holding their breath."

UPDATE: A senior administration official gave more detail on the food assistance discussions in a Wednesday background briefing with reporters. The United States put forward an offer of 20,000 tons of food assistance per month, but not the rice and grain that the North Korean government wanted, because that could be easily diverted to the military.

“And we’re talking about foods that would be appropriate for young children, in particular those under five or six years old, pregnant woman as well because we want to make sure we address the sort of the first 1,000 days as the administration has wanted to focus on,” the official said. “We’re going to have things like corn-soy blend, we will have vegetable oil, some pulses, and then there will be probably a modest amount of the ready-to-use therapeutic foods depending upon the number of children that we see with acute malnutrition.”

The official explained that monitoring mechanisms would have to be firmly in place before food aid can begin to flow. “If we are successful in finalizing the details that I’ve just laid out, this will be the most comprehensively monitored and managed program since the U.S. began assistance to the DPRK in the mid 1990s,” the official said.

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