The Cable

The Shutdown Is Hurting China's Generals, Too

The U.S. government shutdown may finally be starting to wind down, if reports out of Capitol Hill and the White House are to be believed. But in the meantime, the cutoff of federal funds is hobbling American diplomatic efforts around the globe. A long-planned visit from a delegation of Chinese generals has been waived off. The State Department has been forced to postpone a scheduled review in Geneva of America's human rights record. High-level diplomatic, trade, and military meetings have all been shelved.

Last week, the shutdown prompted President Barack Obama to cancel plans to attend last weekend's summit of Asian leaders in Bali, Indonesia. The U.S. trade representative, meanwhile, announced that the United States would have to delay its participation in ongoing trade negotiations in Brussels; the office's tiny, $4 million annual travel budget is now effectively zero. Turns out those major, public admissions were only the start.

Some of China's most influential military thinkers and policymakers -- including several general officers -- were due to come to the United States next week for a series of long-arranged meetings at the U.S. Army War College, followed by private discussions at some of Washington's more prominent think tanks. Led by the respected Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu of the Chinese Academy of Military Science, the delegation's meetings were considered important at a time when Beijing and Washington are squaring off over issues from cybersecurity to the South China Sea.

But on Wednesday, the Army said it had to cancel the meetings because the funds to host the Chinese had dried up. "After the American democratic process provides the Army with funding to conduct international activities, we look forward to rescheduling this exchange at both sides' earliest possible convenience," the service noted in an email.

There are more dramatic stories generated by Congress's inability to fund the government: preschools closed, fighter pilots grounded, code-breakers twiddling their thumbs, oil pipelines left uninspected, grieving families unable to visit their sons who have died in battle. Compared to these human tragedies, America's diplomatic missteps can feel inconsequential. But they do change, if only subtly, how America is perceived in the world.

"When you have situations like this when you cancel trips -- especially on very, very short notice -- it diminishes America's credibility with a country that still casts a wary eye on America's intentions," said Jonathan Pollack, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution (where, full disclosure, Noah Shachtman has a nonresident fellowship).

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told her colleagues on the Security Council last Wednesday that the shutdown had almost derailed her plans to accompany the U.N. Security Council on a tour of the African Great Lakes region to press for peace in the war-wracked Democratic Republic of the Congo. But she ultimately was able to make the journey.

Now, however, U.S. officials claim that America's diplomatic force is being forced to tailor its ambitions. Some U.S. diplomats at the U.N. have told their counterparts that they are uncertain how long they will be on the job. Even Power's Twitter feed, along with that of the U.S. mission of the United Nations, has gone silent since Oct. 2, shortly after the shutdown began.

"We're not conducting business as usual, and we've already had to make some difficult choices about what is and what is not appropriate in this climate, and those choices will only get more difficult," said Erin Pelton, Power's spokeswoman. "Just like the State Department, we have been able to function for a limited period of time without furloughs. But the clock is ticking. The uncertainty caused by the shutdown hinders our diplomacy and development, and depletes our flexibility to respond to national security imperatives."

Sarah Margon, acting Washington director for Human Rights Watch, said that her organization just received word that the State Department decided to postpone next week's high-level meeting of international envoys addressing the long simmering humanitarian and political crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "The State Department has been very lucky so far, as they have been able to move money around to keep everyone employed, but this is now coming down to the wire," Margon said. "My understanding is that they will have to start furloughing" staff in the very near future, she added.

In Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Committee announced that it would delay a review by an international panel of experts of America's compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

"A request for a postponement from the USA was made on 10 October 2013 and accepted by the Committee on the same day," the Geneva-based rights agency announced in a statement. "The USA highlights its regret at having to make such a request, which is due to the ongoing government shutdown."

"The Committee and the Secretariat regret the inconvenience this will cause, in particular to members of civil society who had made arrangements to attend and participate in the meetings," according to the statement.

Nongovernment organizations planning to make the trip to Geneva to draw attention to shortcomings in the American record had to cancel their plans. For instance, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had scheduled a press call Thursday morning to outline its plans for the weeklong visit to Geneva.

But it canceled nearly an hour before.

Jessica Neal, a spokeswoman for the organization, wrote in an email, "the U.S. asked for a postponement due to the government shutdown and it was granted. The delegation will go instead sometime in March, 2014."

Human Rights Watch's Margon, meanwhile, said the review is a "really unfortunate casualty of the shutdown and denies the United States an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to critical human rights issues that are integral to U.S. foreign and domestic policy."

But not everyone was being inconvenienced by the shutdown. One U.N.-based diplomat said that the U.S. Office for Foreign Missions -- which issues tax exemptions and diplomatic immunity cards to foreign diplomats -- said he had submitted an application for a new set of diplomatic license plates on Wednesday. He got a call today saying the request was being processed. "I was afraid that they would also be affected by the shutdown," the diplomat said. "But I got a response. They said they are swamped and that many new diplomats arrived in the summer, and everyone wants diplomatic licenses." But they assured the diplomat that they would process his application for license plates.

Feng Li/Getty Images

The Cable

The War Ain't Over: Syria Hands Eye Chem Inspectors' Peace Prize Skeptically

In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an often-obscure disarmament agency in the Netherlands, the Norwegian Nobel Committee was promoting its aspirations for international harmony as much as it was rewarding achievement.

Sure, the organization, which is responsible for implementing the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, has a long track record of accomplishments. Since its establishment, the agency, which is based in ­The Hague, has conducted thousands of inspections and has verified the destruction of more than 80 percent of the world's declared chemical weapons.

The Nobel Peace Prize committee said that the award was being granted in part to reward yesterday's cleanup, but that the main purpose was to encourage the inspectors to address today's crisis in Syria. And that is a mission that is very much incomplete. Yes, the OPCW's technical specialists, along with experts from the World Health Organization, braved sniper fire as they helped the United Nations determine that chemical weapons had been used in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. And yes, a team of OPCW inspectors, backed by the United Nations, entered Syria last week to begin the ambitious work of overseeing the elimination of one of the world's deadliest chemical weapons programs. But it's an open question whether that goal can be reached in a timely fashion; this week, the U.N. and United States were scrambling to find a taker for Syria's deadly agents, without much luck.

"By means of the present award to the OPCW, the Committee is seeking to contribute to the elimination of chemical weapons," according to a statement issued by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. "Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons."

The OPCW only played a supporting role in securing Syria's agreement to disarm, however. The men who brokered the deal -- Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and of course Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- were not even mentioned in the Nobel Peace Prize statement. In fact, the Nobel committee chided the United States and Russia for failing to meet a 2012 deadline for completing the destruction of their own chemical weapons programs.

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to a senior Russian diplomat -- whose government has armed and defended a regime responsible for killing the vast majority of the more than 100,000 people slain in Syria's civil war -- would have been almost unthinkable. Giving it to Kerry might have been seen as reinforcing the contention of Barack Obama's administration that the threat of unilateral U.S. military action forced Assad to pledge to give up his chemical weapons. It was the State Department, after all, that in August had cast doubts about the relevance of international chemical weapons inspections when the United States weighed whether to strike Assad's forces.

Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, worries that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the inspection agency risks raising expectations impossibly high, setting it up for a potential steep fall.

"We should congratulate the team because they are the ones who are going to put their necks on the line, but we don't know whether this deal will bear fruit," he said. "In terms of bringing peace, which is what the Nobel Prize is all about, this is not going to solve the war. Even if Syria gets rid of chemical weapons by the middle of next year, we're not going to have peace."

The selection of the OPCW reminded Tabler of the decision to award Obama the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year as U.S. president, before he had a proven record of achievements. For a selection committee that favors multilateralism, the selection of an American president who vowed in his campaign to make a break from President George W. Bush's go-it-alone attitude toward the world seemed only natural.

"I realize this is aspirational, and I think the idea of getting chemical weapons out of Syria is a good thing," Tabler said. "But it strikes me as odd. I don't know any other industry where you are rewarded before you actually do anything."

Najib Ghadbian, the U.S. and U.N. representative for the Syrian opposition group the Syrian National Council, welcomed "the timely recognition" of the chemical inspectors as they face major challenges in the coming months. But he also voiced frustration that the world's focus has been so narrowly focused on Syria's chemical weapons program, while the regime carries out most of the killing using conventional weapons, including airstrikes, Scud missiles, artillery, and other heavy weapons.

"For us, the key limitation on the disarming of the regime's chemical weapons is that there is nothing that limits the regime from using these conventional weapons, which have killed 98 percent of the Syrian people," he said. "The international community should be doing more to stop the killing by the Assad regime, including by chemical weapons."

In citing the OPCW, the Norwegian Nobel Committee noted that it has long had a soft spot for disarmament, noting that it "figures prominently" in Alfred Nobel's will. The award has previously been awarded to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

Nonproliferation and disarmament groups praised the decision to award the OPCW, saying it would revive international support for efforts to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. Former Nobel laureate and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who founded Green Cross International, which helps governments dispose of chemical weapons, said OPCW's recognition "can provide the impetus to accelerate efforts to rid the world of these deadly weapons. A chemical weapons-free world is within grasp."

In praising the Nobel committee's choice, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it drove home the fact that a scourge of the past was rearing its ugly head.

"This recognition occurs nearly 100 years after the first chemical attack -- and 50 days after the appalling use of chemical weapons in Syria. Far from being a relic of the past, chemical weapons remain a clear and present danger," he said in a statement. "Together, we must ensure that the fog of war will never again be composed of poison gas."

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