The Cable

Rand Paul: My colleagues just voted to arm the allies of al Qaeda

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) blasted members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, which voted overwhelmingly to arm elements of the Syrian opposition in a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). "This is an important moment," Paul said, addressing his Senate colleagues. "You will be funding, today, the allies of al Qaeda. It's an irony you cannot overcome."

The legislation, which would authorize the shipment of arms and military training to rebels "that have gone through a thorough vetting process," passed in a bipartisan 15-3 vote. Paul offered an amendment that would strike the bill's weapons provision, but it was rejected along with another Paul amendment ruling out the authorization of the use of military force in Syria. (Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy was the only senator to join Paul in support of the weapons amendment.)

Paul's two amendments constituted his first legislative act to soften the Menendez-Corker bill, which earned the support of powerful lawmakers from Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) to Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to Marco Rubio (R-FL) -- all of whom rejected Paul's allegations. "I don't think any member of this committee would vote for anything we thought was going to arm al Qaeda," said Rubio. "Al Qaeda, unfortunately, is well-armed," added Menendez. "That is the present reality in Syria." 

The dispute centers on the issue of whether the United States could properly vet Syrian rebels so that weapons and body armor would not fall into the hands of extremist groups, such as the al Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra Front. The Pentagon's top brass has vacillated about whether it's logistically possible to keep track of weapons as they enter a conflict involving a complex mix of opposition groups, as the new bill would require.

Corker added that not arming rebel groups such as the more moderate Free Syrian Army would ensure the dominance of the better-equipped al-Nusra Front. Paul responded, saying, "It's impossible to know who our friends are ... I know everyone here wants to do the right thing, but I think it's a rush to war."

To get a sense of how adamant the committee is to authorize more aggressive intervention in Syria, an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) to limit the types of weapons delivered to rebels was forcefully rejected as well. "The senator from New Mexico wants to use shotguns against SCUD missiles," McCain said dismissively.

The bill now includes an amendment by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), that would "require the administration to impose sanctions on entities that provide surface-to-surface or surface-to-air missiles, like the SA20s or S300s, to the Assad regime," according to a press release -- a clear reference to Russia, which has vowed in recent weeks to proceed with sales of advanced missiles that would extend the range and sophistication of the Syrian regime's anti-aircraft systems.

The Menendez-Corker bill next moves to the Senate floor, but an aide to Menendez said it was uncertain when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, will take up the legislation.

Observers say the bill's chances of passing in its current form are slim, but it does increase the pressure on the administration to intervene more aggressively. As Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted earlier this month, "If you want to pressure the president into acting, it's a pretty good bill ...The last time the Hill moved on Syria was sanctions on Syrian oil in the summer of 2011. That pressured the president to move, and this could too."

The Cable

Business crowd gives Thein Sein a warm welcome

You could almost hear the geopolitical tectonic plates shifting as the 200-odd guests clinked their glasses of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc and Meiomi Pinot Noir in honor of Thein Sein, the reformist president of Burma and the toast of Washington this week.

Sein -- the first Burmese leader to visit the U.S. capital in 47 years -- was speaking at a swank U.S. Chamber of Commerce gala dinner put on in cooperation with the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and sponsored by a raft of American companies, including GE, Ford, P&G, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, MasterCard, ExxonMobil, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

U.S. officials Robert Hormats, the undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, and Derek Mitchell, the U.S. ambassador to Burma, credited Sein with shepherding what Hormats called "remarkable progress over the course of a couple years" in bringing one of the world's most isolated countries into the international system.

"They are tremendous partners," Mitchell said of the Burmese government.

Mitchell -- who like Hormats referred to the country by its official name, Myanmar-- noted that Sein had used his free time in Washington to visit Mt. Vernon, implicitly comparing the Burmese leader to George Washington and subtly prodding him to follow the American founding father's example by solidifying the principle of civilian control of the military.

The State Department is working assiduously to promote U.S. investment in what is currently one of the hottest growth stories in the world -- a gold rush to which Mitchell aluded, joking to the crowd, "I feel like I've hosted every single one of you over the past several months."

A GE official, James Suciu, announced at the dinner that GE is opening two offices in the next two weeks: One in Yangon and one in Nay Pyi Taw, the capital. The company expects to be doing as much as half a billion dollars in annual revenue in Burma in the next few years.

Several oil companies, including event co-sponsor Chevron, have been battling with human rights groups over a forthcoming State Department rule governing investment in Burma, a resource-rich country that was once one of the most heavily sanctioned in the world.

Sein himself said little of interest, hitting all the right buzzwords: accountability, transparency, market economy, "arbitration systems in line with international standards," and so on -- though he did surprise his audience by speaking in reasonably fluid, albeit heavily accented English.

"We want to lay the foundation for a robust middle class," he said. "We would like to invite U.S. businesses to come and invest in Myanmar."

Sein met earlier in the day with U.S. President Barack Obama, who told him, "we want you to know that the United States will make every effort to assist you on what I know is a long, and sometimes difficult, but ultimately correct path to follow."