The Cable

Saudis Shock U.N., Quit Security Council Over Syria

Saudi Arabia took the extraordinary step Friday of refusing to take its seat on the U.N. Security Council -- despite pursuing the position for years. It's an unprecedented protest over the council's failure to take firmer action in Syria and Palestine. And it comes at a time of growing Saudi frustration with American-led policies across the Middle East.

The decision, which came in an announcement from the Saudi Foreign Ministry, came one day after Saudi Arabia was elected for the first time in its history to the United Nations' most powerful body. And it reflected deep resentment over China and Russia's blockage of steps by the Security Council to restrain President Bashar al-Assad's military and to force him from power. The announcement left many regional specialists shaking their heads, saying the move may run counter to Saudi interests and would deny the Saudis an opportunity to use the high-profile position on the council to promote a tougher line on Syria and other issues.

"This strikes me as bizarre; I've got no good explanation for it," said F. Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and an expert on Saudi Arabia. "I know the Saudi diplomats at the mission were preparing for this; they were taking courses at Columbia University to get ready." Gause said that Saudi foreign policy has a deeply personal quality to it and that the Saudi leadership sometimes has "fits of pique and then backs down. I don't know if this is a fit of pique."

Saudi Arabia is one of five countries that were elected by the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday to serve two-year stints without veto power on the council starting on Jan. 1. The others are Chad, Chile, Lithuania, and Nigeria.

Some Security Council members cautioned that the Saudis' intentions are not entirely clear. Will they, for instance, formally resign their seat, or will they just not show up for Security Council sessions? "Let's not get ahead of ourselves," said one council diplomat. "We haven't seen anything formal from the Saudis, and we can't say exactly what this is."

The Saudis have grown increasingly frustrated with the U.N.'s handling of the Syria crisis. In September, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, abandoned plans to deliver his speech to the 193-member General Assembly because of the council's failure to take action in Syria and Palestine, according to diplomatic sources. "The Saudi decision … reflects the kingdom's dissatisfaction with the position of the U.N. on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of Palestine that the U.N. has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as well as the Syrian crisis," a diplomatic source told Reuters.

Still, the decision took many by surprise.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments have long decried the inability of the U.N. Security Council to impose pressure on Israel to return Arab lands to the Palestinians and to halt the establishment of new Jewish settlements. But for years, the Security Council's edicts have often coincided with Saudi Arabia's interests: pressuring its adversary Syria to withdraw forces from Lebanon and imposing sanctions on its chief regional rival, Iran, for continuing to enrich uranium.

But the Saudis have made their displeasure clear over the course of U.S.-backed diplomatic efforts by Security Council members to engage Iran in nuclear talks and to work with Assad on a deal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons. Saudi Arabia's leaders have refused to accept a visit by the U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is spearheading international efforts to negotiate a political settlement between Assad's government and the Syrian opposition. Meanwhile, Riyadh has continued to arm Syrian rebels and back the opposition Syrian National Coalition. The Saudis have also been pressing for support for a resolution in the U.N. General Assembly that would denounce Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons and his government's abuse of human rights.

In a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency, the Saudi Foreign Ministry offered its "sincere thanks and deep gratitude to all countries that have given their confidence to elect it as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for the next two years." But it said "Saudi Arabia … is refraining from taking membership of the U.N. Security Council until it has reformed so it can effectively and practically perform its duties and discharge its responsibilities in maintaining international security and peace." It denounced that "the method and work mechanism and the double standards in the Security Council prevent it from properly shouldering its responsibilities towards world peace."

"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a founding member of the United Nations, is proud of its full and permanent commitment to the purposes and principles of the charter of the United Nations, believing that commitment of all member states, honestly, truthfully and accurately, as agreed upon and stipulated in the charter is the real guarantee for world security and peace."

U.N. specialists say that this is the first time a country has ever flat-out refused a Security Council seat. In 1950, the Soviet Union boycotted the Security Council to protest its failure to accept the People's Republic of China as a member of the U.N. security body. The move proved disastrous for the Soviets. In June 1950, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution authorizing a U.S.-led military intervention in Korea, a decision the Soviets would have been able to veto if they had been present in the room. Two years earlier, Ukraine temporarily refused to attend Security Council meetings. But council diplomats say it is unprecedented for a newly elected member of the Security Council to decline to serve out its term.

"There are no precedents. Candidates normally drop out before elected, usually when their regional group is divided or the race for a seat is contentious," said Edward Luck, a historian and professor at the University of San Diego. But this is "a baffling case of shooting oneself in the foot. Apparently, Riyadh failed to learn the lesson of Moscow's boycott: You can't win if you refuse to play the game."

One U.N. official said that the Saudi action might be viewed "as a principled step" to underscore the council's inconsistency if Saudi Arabia "had a reasonable human rights record" and did not have a record of "promoting religious war abroad." Still, the official added, the gesture "could help shake up the current system."

Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, said the Saudi move may reflect the country's realization that major non-Western powers are routinely "cut out of serious decision-making" by the council's big five powers.

"The Saudis may come to regret this maneuver," said Gowan. "It wins them some attention today, but they could find themselves excluded from Security Council talks on the war in Syria" and potentially on future talks aimed at relaxing sanctions on Iran.

If that's the case, he added, "this will look like a strategic mistake."

Follow me on Twitter: @columlynch


The Cable

State Dept's Internal Watchdogs Were Sent Home While Most Others Worked

As hundreds of thousands of federal employees returned to work on Thursday, the headcount at the State Department barely changed thanks to a clever use of rainy day funds preventing mass furloughs. But one office in Foggy Bottom wasn't so lucky: The Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

During the 16-day government shutdown, the internal government watchdog tasked with investigating fraud, waste and mismanagement was reduced to a skeleton crew unlike the vast majority of offices in the building. The disproportionate furlough allotment has led critics to accuse the department of undervaluing the watchdog office, though the department strongly disputes that.

"On day one, they sent home the IG's office without knowing how long the shutdown would last," a Congressional staffer familiar with State's shutdown planning told The Cable. "I think the Department's action speaks for itself about its commitment to transparency, accountability, and oversight." 

But State's IG spokesman Douglas Welty denied the allegation. "OIG does not feel ‘targeted' or ‘undervalued' at all," he said. "While there was certainly a significant impact on OIG operations with about 65% of our staff furloughed due to the government shutdown, work on several priority issues and projects continued."

Unlike the Pentagon, CIA or Treasury, which furloughed hundreds of thousands of employees, the State Department skated by during the shutdown, furloughing only about 340 people. But State's OIG, which has 318 total positions, absorbed the brunt of the furloughs, with only 85 employees working during the shutdown. (The only other offices with furloughs were the International Boundary Commission, the International Joint Commission and the International Boundary and Water Commission.)

The disproportionate furlough treatment is largely due to a quirk in how inspectors general offices receive funding, rather than a desire to punish the internal watchdog. "While a significant portion of appropriations for the department are designated as multi-year funds, most of OIG's funding is designated as single-year," Welty explained. "Without a 2014 appropriation, or a continuing resolution, OIG has little funding for operations."

But the optics of OIG taking a disproportionate share of the furloughs isn't great for an office with a history of being marginalized.

Until this June, the department had no appointed inspector general for five years, the longest such vacancy of any federal agency ever. For years, lawmakers hounded the department about the vacancy and it didn't help that The Washington Post reported in April 2011 that State Department leaders had urged President Obama not to appoint an inspector general.

But the appointment of Steve Linick, the former inspector general of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, eventually surfaced this summer following a bout of a high stakes brinksmanship by the then-obscure Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

Before the junior senator had fixated on shutting down the federal government, he turned his gaze to the State Department where he pledged to place holds on every nomination until the appointment of an IG. "The position has been vacant for almost 2,000 days," said the Republican lawmaker. "This is a crucial oversight position and should be a priority for an agency facing substantial management challenges."

Days later, Linick was appointed for the job. Interestingly, his first day at OIG collided with this month's shutdown madness. "By coincidence,  the shutdown started one day after Steve Linick joined the office as our new inspector general," said Welty. "But he was able to use the opportunity to meet with senior staff and receive thorough briefings on OIG's organizational structure, operations and priority issues."

One of those priorities, say critics, should be restoring the office's reputation for independence, which took a hit this summer following allegations by a former IG investigator Aurelia Fedenisn.

Fedenisn had accused colleagues of influencing, manipulating or calling off investigations into misconduct by State Department employees on everything from using drugs, soliciting prostitutes and having sex with minors. The department denied the allegations, but launched an internal review of its practices.

Now that the IG's office is fully-staffed, following a last-minute deal by Senate Democrats and Republicans, Linick will be able to tackle those issues. But Bob Silverman, President of the American Foreign Service Association, says the shutdown has already caused a significant backlog for the office. "They were widely furloughed and now they're trying to catch up," he told The Cable. "If you're interested in oversight of how our embassies and diplomatic missions run, this was a real hit. They're now trying to catch up and get out of an operational hole."