The Cable

State Dept: No announcement yet of assistance to French forces in Mali

The French government has made a number of requests for U.S. assistance for its intervention in Mali, but the Obama administration won't say if it has decided to use U.S. military assets to help French forces fighting there.

Several reports Monday said the Obama administration was already moving to aid the French military intervention in Mali, which began over the weekend, by readying surveillance drones and intelligence assets in the region. French airplanes struck deep inside Mali Sunday as part of the new campaign to aid local forces that are trying to take back control over large swathes of the country from Islamic extremist groups, including Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM).

The U.S. position for months had been to urge caution when considering intervention, which could provoke backlash. U.S. U.N. ambassador Susan Rice reportedly once called a previous plan for ECOWAS to train Malian government forces in Southern Mali to retake the North "crap" (Rice's office disputes that report but maintains the plan would not have been likely to succeed). But now that the French have gone in, the United States seems poised to help.

"We share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven. We are in consultation with the French now on a number of requests that they have made for support. We are reviewing the requests that they have made, but I don't have any decisions to announce yet today," said State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Notably, she did not say the decision is yet to be made, only that the administration is not ready to tell the public.

The U.S. government wants the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) to speed its own deployment of troops into Mali and ECOWAS leaders will meet on the issue Wednesday, Nuland said. She added that the United States is prepared to send teams from the Africa Contingency Operations Training & Assistance (ACOTA) program there this week. ACOTA is a State Department program funded through the office of peace keeping operations.

The United States won't be providing direct military support to the Mali government forces, only ECOWAS and possibly French forces, Nuland said. The European Union could provide such support and will hold a foreign ministers' meeting on the issue Jan. 17.

"We are not in a position to support the Malian military directly until we have democratic processes restored by way of an election in Mali," Nuland said. "And we very much believe that there is no purely security solution to the problems in Mali."

The United States is also pushing, on a parallel track, dialogue between all stakeholders who are not engaged in active terrorism. The goal is for elections to happen in April.

Nuland also acknowledged that AQIM forces in Mali are better trained and equipped than previously thought.

"We've been clear about that all along that we think AQIM is playing a significant role in this," she said.

Some reporters at today's State Department briefing noted that the French also struck first in Libya, after which the United States joined the fight. Nuland rejected the notion that France is dragging America into another war in North Africa.

"We'll make our own national decisions now with regard to the kinds of support that France may need that we'd be willing to offer," she said.

The Cable

Kerry won’t chair Clinton Benghazi hearing

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) will not chair Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's hearing on the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, which is expected to take place next week.

Kerry is in the unique position of being the chairman of the committee before which he will testify as part of his confirmation process to replace Clinton in Foggy Bottom. Although no final dates have been confirmed, Clinton is expected to testify on Benghazi Jan. 22, and Kerry's confirmation hearing is expected to happen as soon as Jan. 23. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Kerry's presumptive successor as SFRC chairman, is expected to chair both hearings.

"Kerry will not preside over the Benghazi hearing because he doesn't want to put his colleagues in an awkward situation. Also, he already presided over a Benghazi hearing last month," a committee aide told The Cable. "Senator Kerry will remain SFRC chair until he is confirmed."

Committee sources told The Cable that Kerry's decision not to resign as committee chair before he is confirmed is based on two calculations. First of all, he doesn't want to appear presumptive, just in case he is not confirmed, although he is widely expected to sail through. Secondly, if for some reason he is not confirmed, Kerry would want to retain his committee chairmanship as a fallback plan.

The musical chairs at SFRC have become a complicated dance for the committee staff, some of whom are helping Kerry to prepare for his hearing and some of whom are helping the rest of the committee prepare to vet Kerry. The State Department is also prepping Kerry for his hearing, and the nominee has been spending a lot of time at the State Department for briefings, but his staff is leading the preparations. Menendez's staff is assisting in the preparation for the Kerry hearing as well, committee sources said.

SFRC ranking Republican Bob Corker (R-TN) said last week he thinks the Clinton hearing will take place on Jan. 22.

"I had some very good conversations with her chief of staff," Corker told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Jan. 8. "My sense is, Andrea, that her hearing probably will take place the morning of the 22nd... I think they feel she's going to be healthy enough to come in that day."

Clinton is preparing for the hearing now. "The secretary is going through all the steps this department is taking to implement the recommendations of the Accountability Review Board," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said today.

Over at State, speculation abounds about who Kerry may or may not bring with him if and when he moves over to State. The conventional wisdom is that many officials close to Clinton will depart, but some of them may stay, meaning that Kerry might not bring in as many of his own people as Clinton did back in 2009.

There's also concern that the White House might try to populate State with current and former NSC officials as a bid to assert more control over State. Clinton had secured 100 percent control over personnel assignments as part of her deal with President Barack Obama when she accepted the secretary of state job. Kerry has no such arrangement.