The Cable

Obama’s transportation secretary hails Chinese infrastructure

Echoing the laments of pundits like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood argued Saturday that China outpaces the United States in building major transportation infrastructure like high-speed rail because of its authoritarian system and because the Chinese don't have the Republican Party holding up progress.

"The Chinese are more successful [in building infrastructure] because in their country, only three people make the decision. In our country, 3,000 people do, 3 million," LaHood said in a short interview with The Cable on the sidelines of the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival on June 30. "In a country where only three people make the decision, they can decide where to put their rail line, get the money, and do it. We don't do it that way in America."

LaHood said that despite this, democracy is still preferable. "We have the best system of government anywhere on the planet. It is the best. Because the people have their say," he said.

During his conference session at the festival, LaHood blamed Republicans in Congress, especially the Tea Party freshman class elected in 2010, for the relative lack of progress in moving forward with high-speed rail even though the administration has obligated more than $11 billion to the effort.

"Two years ago, between 50 to 60 Republicans were elected to the House of Representatives to come to Washington to do nothing, and that's what they've done and they've stopped any progress. Those people don't have any vision about what the government can do. That's been a real inhibitor in our ability to think outside the box and think big," he said.

"We used to be No. 1. We're not No. 1 anymore. We're No. 23," he continued. "Previous generations have always left something to the next generation. We owe it to the next generation to leave them something. We shortchange the next generation if we don't leave them high-speed rail. That's our obligation."

LaHood boldly predicted in his remarks at the conference that 80 percent of Americans will be connected with passenger rail within the next 25 years. He said that this will be accomplished through a series of commitments by the federal government, state governments, and the private sector.

"That's how they did in Europe, that's how they did it in Asia, and that's how we will do it in America," he said. "There's no turning back on this. We're not going to turn back. And you know why? Because that's what the people want. That's why... there's no stopping high speed rail."

LaHood heavily criticized the governors of Wyoming and Florida, who have rejected federal attempts to move forward with high-speed rail in their states, and he fought off a heckler from California who said that high-speed rail was not a wise investment of taxpayer money.

"Doing nothing is not acceptable. Don't be coming here and telling me it's not acceptable if you don't have an alternative. It's coming to California," LaHood exclaimed. "All the studies show, if you build it they will come."

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Cable

Clinton embarks on two-week trip to Asia, Middle East

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington today on a two-week trip that includes a stop in Israel, a stop in Egypt, and a new effort to head off a possible new round of tensions with Palestinian leaders.

Clinton's travel will take her to France, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Egypt and Israel. The first item on Clinton's international agenda is Syria, and Clinton will attend the Friday meeting in Paris of the Friends of Syria group, the U.S.- and Turkey-led diplomatic initiative that is meant to coordinate international action to resolve the Syrian crisis.

Clinton isn't expected to make any significant changes in the U.S. position on Syria, which is still, in a nutshell, to avoid direct intervention, look the other way while Gulf Arab states arms the opposition, and work with Russia to facilitate a Yemen-like political transition.

"[T]he secretary will consult with her colleagues on steps to increase pressure on the Assad regime and to support UN-Arab League Special Envoy Annan's efforts to end the violence and facilitate a political transition to a post-Assad Syria," read a statement sent out by the State Department today.

While she's in Paris, Clinton will also meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, "to discuss both parties' efforts to pursue a dialogue and build on President Abbas' exchange of letters with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu," the State Department said.

Reuters reported that reported that Clinton requested the meeting and will also press Abbas not to pursue a new United Nations resolution that condemns settlements in "occupied" territories. Expectations on the Palestinian side for any progress in Paris are low, according to Reuters.

On the Israeli side, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told an audience last week at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival that a new unilateral settlement freeze was not likely. "The Palestinians under Abu Mazen refused once and again to get into the room without a precondition... I believe that most of the responsibility is on their shoulders," he said.

The U.S. and Palestinian leaderships have also been at loggerheads over the Palestinian drive to seek membership in U.N. bodies, such as UNESCO. U.S. law required the end of all American contributions to UNESCO after that body admitted Palestine as a member earlier this year.

On July 8, Clinton will go on to Tokyo to attend an international conference on the future of Afghanistan, a follow-up to last December's conference in Bonn, Germany. In Tokyo, Clinton will talk about the "transformation decade" in Afghanistan, which she will say begins in 2015, after the bulk of U.S. and international forces leave that country.

"The Afghan Government in turn will lay out its plan for economic reform and continued steps toward good governance," the State Department said in its release.

The next day Clinton will go to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to speak to a meeting of the Governing Board of the Community of Democracies, an informal multilateral coalition of countries that promotes democratic values,, speak at a women's conference, and meet with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj and Prime Minister Sükhbaataryn Batbold.

On July 10 Clinton moves on to Hanoi for a day of meetings with government and business leaders before traveling to Vientiane, Laos, on July 11. Her stop in Laos will mark the first visit to that country -- one of the world's last avowedly communist states -- by a U.S. Secretary of State in 57 years and Clinton will meet with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong.

After her brief stop in Laos, Clinton will arrive late in the day July 11 in Cambodia. While there, she will participate in three major conferences: the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting, and the U.S.-ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference. Tensions between China and its neighbors over maritime disputes is sure to be high on the agenda.

After two days in Phnom Penh, Clinton will go to the city of Siem Reap on July 14 to meet with business leaders and deliver the keynote address at the Lower Mekong Initiative Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Dialogue. The Lower Mekong Initiative is a development-focused forum that joins the U.S. with several southeast Asian nations.

The next day it's off to Cairo, where Clinton is reported to have a meeting scheduled with the new President Mohamed Morsy. She will stay in Egypt until July 16, and will meet with senior government officials, civil society, and business leaders, and inaugurate the U.S. consulate in Alexandria.

The last stop on Clinton's tour is Israel, where she will be meeting with as yet undisclosed Israeli leaders "to discuss peace efforts and a range of regional and bilateral issues of mutual concern," the State Department said.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is also expected to travel to Israel to meet with leaders there sometime this summer.