The Cable

McCain to join Foreign Relations Committee just before Sec State hearing

MANAMA - The committee that will soon vet the next secretary of state will have a new Republican heavyweight next year: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the man leading the charge against potential nominee U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.

McCain told The Cable he will join the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and also remain on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in an interview on the sidelines of the 2012 IISS Manama Security Dialogue.

McCain, who finishes his six-year term as ranking Republican on the SASC this year, will not challenge Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) for the leadership post on the SFRC, but his presence will be felt, especially during the confirmation hearings, which could be especially contentious this time around if Rice is chosen as the nominee. Those nomination hearings would be chaired by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) -- that is, unless Kerry gets the nod himself.

White House sources insist there's no way to know who President Barack Obama will ultimately choose, but the stakes are rising in the ongoing feud between the White House and the anti-Rice crowd in the Senate, which is led by McCain. Neither side is backing down, and McCain says he wants to expand his inquiry past Rice's Sept. 16 comments about the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.

"I have some concerns about what happened in Africa under her watch. All that has not been examined," he said, referring to Rice's role in shaping U.S. policy during the Clinton administration. Her involvement in decisions relating to the Rwandan genocide and her close ties to several African leaders are now being poured over by journalists around the world.

Rice is also facing scrutiny for her investments in TransCanada, a company involved in the Keystone Pipeline project, and her investments with several companies that do business in Iran. Her defender say she has properly disclosed her investment.

  • The White House is convinced the whirlwind of negative coverage is a coordinated effort by the Republican political machine to sink the Rice nomination before it even surfaces.

    "I would commend Republican opposition researchers for the intellectual bandwidth that is required to read a financial disclosure form, because this was all documented in a financial disclosure form, entirely, appropriately, legally and by the books," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Nov. 29. "So what this represents I think in vivid fashion is what I've been talking about for a while now, which is that none of this has anything to do with the tragedy that occurred in Benghazi.  This is about politics.  And that's a shame."

    The fight is getting personal. After McCain called Rice "not very bright," a group of African American congresswomen called McCain "sexist and racist" and House Minority Deputy Whip James Clyburn (D-MD) said McCain was using racial code words.

    Democrats defending Rice also note that McCain made arguments in the past supporting the president's right to have his nominees confirmed.

    "I believe there are significant numbers of the American people who do take into consideration the consequences of a presidential election, and that is the earned right of a president, under anything other than unusual circumstances, to pick his team," McCain said in 2005, during the fight over the nomination of U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.

    Bolton stood accused of pressuring State Department analysts and the CIA to alter their intelligence assessments regarding Iraq's WMD capabilities in the run up to the Iraq war. He ultimately was not confirmed and served for one year under a recess appointment.

    It's unclear whether the five or six Senate Republicans who have come out against Rice's potential nomination would succeed in their effort to thwart her nomination, if it materializes. McCain said the Senate should use the confirmation process to properly examine the president's choice, and he pointed to her SFRC hearing as the place for the final showdown.

    "I'll wait and see if she's nominated and we'll move on from there. She has the right to have hearings. We'll see what happens in the hearings," he said.

    When asked why he wanted to join the Foreign Relations Committee, McCain joked, "Because I want to spend more time with you, Josh."

    UPDATE: McCain spokesman Brian Rogers writes in to say that next year's committee assignements are not yet final and the leadership has the final say.

    "Senator McCain has expressed interest in joining the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but no final decisions on committee assignments have been made," Rogers said.

  • Mark Wilson/Getty Images

    The Cable

    Burns and McCain square off on Syria and the Asia 'pivot'

    MANAMA - Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) argued in public  Saturday over whether the United States is still exerting leadership in Syria and around the Middle East region.

    "For all the logical focus on pivots in other directions, the fact remains that the United States cannot afford to neglect what's at stake in the Middle East, a region in the midst of transformations every bit as profound and consequential as the changes that swept over Europe and Eurasia two decades ago," said Burns, the leader of the U.S. government delegation to the 2012 IISS Manama Security Dialogue.

    Burns told the assembled audience of officials and experts from 28 countries that the Obama administration's "pivot" or "rebalancing" toward Asia was not a zero-sum game and he said that American attention to the Middle East and the Gulf has not and will not diminish.

    "It's a region today that is full of both threat and promise. It's a region that demands American leadership despite the pull of other challenges and the natural policy fatigue that comes after a decade in which our national security strategy was dominated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

    Sitting next to him on the panel, McCain said his frequent travels around the region had convinced him that all kinds of regional actors have concluded that America is receding in terms of leadership and commitments - and that perception has negative consequences.

    "The idea that the U.S. can pivot away from the Middle East is the height of foolishness," said McCain. "This perception, that the United States is disinterested, disengaged, or distracted, can be very dangerous. It can lead to our enemies to test America's friends and allies in this region through even more threatening actions and it could bolster the more radical and  hard line elements among our friends who say they must take matters into our own hands because America can't be trusted."

    "I'll talk straight with you, it's difficult to convince the American people right now, both Republicans and Democrats, that we need to more in the world, not less," he said. "But we need greater leadership.'

    Burns responded by saying that while there are limits to American influence, he was confident that over the long term, America's actions would convince countries in the Middle East that American leadership will continue.

    "We don't have the luxury of pivoting in one direction and neglecting our interests in others. That's easy to say and the proof is in the actions we take. I think you'll continue to see from the United States very active engagement and very active leadership," he said. "There is no substitute for the ability and capacity of the US to articulate a vision and try to mobilize coaltitions of countries to achieve those aims."

    McCain used the example of Syria to counter Burn's assertion that the regional perception of a lack of American leadership was unfounded.

    "So many [regional leaders] want greater U.S. engagement and leadership in advance of the interests and  values we share and unfortunately there is a  visceral sense I get among the leaders in the region that they are not getting as much support from the United States as they desire," McCain said. "This is the perception in Syria, where everything that people said would happen if we did intervene has now happened because we have not intervened."

    On Syria, Burns said that the balance of power on the ground is clearly shifting against the regime and that the Obama administration is considering additional ways the "can help speed the genuine transition of power," ideally through a political transition to new leadership based on the Geneva plan developed last summer.

    "The longer the conflict in Syria continues, the greater the human tragedy for the Syrian people and the greater the danger of spillover into a neighborhood that already has more than its share of problems in security," said Burns.

    McCain said the divide over whether to increase American activity and leadership abroad was not a partisan one, but rather a battle in Washington between internationalists and isolationists, both of which can be found in either party.

    "I want to work with my Democrat colleagues, especially the president, to ensure this region can progress to the more hopeful and peaceful future that all of us seek," McCain said. "And if the president does the right thing, if he leads and takes greater actions to support our friends, interests, and values, in Syria, Libya, or anywhere else, he'll certainly have my support."