Obama 2.0: Who’s leaving, staying, moving

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With UN ambassador Susan Rice set to meet Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte on Tuesday, pieces seem to be falling in place for her nomination to become Secretary of State to proceed.

Administration officials offered The Back Chanel more tips on moves afoot in the Obama administration foreign policy team.

In the certain to go camp:

Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell is leaving, official told the Back Channel, to chair the board of the Center for New American Security (CNAS), the think tank he co-founded with Michele Flournoy, and do Asia consulting. (His spouse Lael Brainard, Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs, may leave the administration too, an official said. White House chief of staff Jack Lew is expected to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary.)

NSC Middle East senior advisor Steve Simon is due to leave shortly to become head of a think tank, officials told the Back Channel.

AfPak envoy Marc Grossman will leave, officials said. It is unclear who will succeed him.

In the likely to move camp:

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns may be nominated to succeed Rice as US ambassador to the UN, officials said.

Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides is being mulled for a White House job, possibly White House chief of staff, which can put his knowledge of budgets to work, as well as his relationship with Congress and Wall Street.

NSC economics senior advisor Michael Froman is likely to move, possibly to become US Trade Rep. Continue reading

Why John Kerry may have to cool his heels on Secretary of State

Conventional wisdom has rapidly taken hold in the wake of President Obama’s reelection victory that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is first in line of candidates to succeed Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State.

But Obama administration officials tell the Back Channel that there are several reasons Kerry may have to cool his heels a while–having nothing to do with Kerry not being held in high esteem by the White House. Among them:

1) Secretary Clinton, who met with Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House Friday, feels an obligation to see the Benghazi investigation through and not leave any taint from that investigation to be faced by her successor. This could have her staying on til February or March, one administration source, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor Friday.

2) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has told the White House that he will be “furious” if he loses Kerry from the Senate, to leave the Massachusetts Democratic Senate seat vulnerable in a special election race against Republican Scott Brown, who has millions of dollars in the bank left over from his unsuccessful Senate run against Democrat Elizabeth Warren. The White House may feel especially obliged to listen to Reid, because he is a key reason the Democrats held onto their Senate majority, and because “they have to keep Reid happy as a clam” on the fiscal cliff negotiations, the official said. (Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and his wife are due to have a ‘social’ dinner with President and Michelle Obama at the White House Friday night. But while some thought Patrick might be in position to run against Brown if a Kerry nomination leaves the Senate seat open, other sources say Patrick has his eye on the AG job.)

3) While there are important constituencies in and out of his administration pushing for Kerry, including reportedly Vice President Biden, Kerry’s predecessor as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, “Obama loves” Susan Rice, his US Ambassador to the United Nations, the official noted. If Clinton stays on through the Benghazi investigation, that may blunt and defuse Congressional Republican wrath (and political opportunism) over the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attacks that has heretofore targeted Rice, among others, and that has raised concerns about whether a Rice confirmation hearing would become a huge, ugly partisan food fight. (There are also reports of CIA Director David Petraeus being at the White House Friday, and murmurs that some Hill Republicans believe the CIA has not been forthcoming about the CIA role in Benghazi. Update: Petraeus offered his resignation, citing an affair, which Obama accepted Friday. The affair, with his biographer Paula Broadwell, was uncovered by an FBI investigation, apparently of emails sent by Broadwell to a female friend of Petraeus‘ whom Broadwell perceived as a romantic rival.)

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US-Israel war game scaled back (Updated)


Update: The Defense Department belatedly issued a statement Friday noting the exercise still remains the largest ballistic missile defense exercise ever undertaken by the US and Israel.

The Pentagon has scaled back a joint US-Israeli military exercise scheduled to take place this fall,  Time‘s Karl  Vick and Aaron Klein exclusively report:

…Well-placed sources in both countries have told TIME that Washington has greatly reduced the scale of U.S. participation, slashing by more than two-thirds the number of American troops going to Israel and reducing both the number and potency of missile interception systems at the core of the joint exercise.

“Basically what the Americans are saying is, ‘We don’t trust you,’” a senior Israeli military official tells TIME.

The reductions are striking. Instead of the approximately 5,000 U.S. troops originally trumpeted for Austere Challenge 12, as the annual exercise is called, the Pentagon will send only 1,500 service members, and perhaps as few as 1,200.  Patriot anti-missile systems will arrive in Israel as planned, but the crews to operate them will not.  [...]

U.S. commanders privately revealed the scaling back to their Israeli counterparts more than two months ago.  The official explanation was budget restrictions.  But the American retreat coincided with growing tensions between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations on Israel’s persistent threats to launch an airstrike on Iran. ….

The back story: Late last year, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak asked US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to cancel the exercise, which was originally scheduled to take place this past spring, defense sources previously told Al-Monitor. Panetta agreed to the request only if the exercise was rescheduled, not canceled entirely. So the Pentagon was deeply annoyed when Israeli officials left the false impression that the US was responsible for the war game being postponed. “It was Barak,” a US official told me.

Update: The Pentagon disputed the interpretation offered by Time for the scaled back exercise in a statement late Friday afternoon, noting Austere Challenge-12 will still represent “the largest ever ballistic missile defense exercise” between the United States and Israel.

“The exercise was originally scheduled for May, however at the request of the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Israeli Defense Forces, the exercise was moved to late Fall of this year,” Ltn. Col. Wesley P. Miller IV, a Defense Department spokesman, told journalists in a statement sent out late Friday afternoon, several hours after guidance had been sought on the Time report.

“When the exercise was moved, the United States notified Israel that due to
concurrent operations, the United States would provide a smaller number of
personnel and equipment than originally planned. Israel reiterated its
request to postpone until late Fall,” Miller continued.

However, “Austere Challenge-12 remains the largest ever ballistic missile defense exercise between our nations and a significant increase from the previous event in 2009,” Miller continued. “The exercise has not changed in scope and will include the same types of systems as planned.”

“As Israel Minister of Defense Ehud Barak has repeatedly said, the US-Israel
defense relationship is stronger than it has ever been,” Miller said. “The United States
agrees. Austere Challenge is a tangible sign of our mutual trust and our
shared commitment to the defense of our nations.”

(H/T Zvika Krieger)

(Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (2nd R) and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak pose with Israeli soldiers after a joint news conference during a visit to the Iron Dome defense system launch site in Ashkelon August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool.)

Panetta to Netanyahu: US “will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period”


The United States will use all means to ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Israeli leaders Wednesday.

The United States “will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period,” Panetta said at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem Wednesday “We will not allow them to develop a nuclear weapon, and we will exert all options in the effort to ensure that that does not happen.”

The Pentagon chief is the latest senior Obama official seeking to reassure Israel, amid mounting concern in Washington that Israel is losing patience with the U.S. approach and may move to strike Iran this fall, I report in a piece on the front page.

“The problem we face is, to the Israelis, it looks like we are dithering and that we are going to keep on dithering until they lose their opportunity to act,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an interview with Al-Monitor shortly after his research organization held discussions with former members of Israel’s strategic dialogue. “That is not confidence-building for the Israelis.”

“The US administration’s attitude is, we’ve got to wait to see if [the sanctions are] working, Clawson said. “On sanctions, … the big question is what political impact they have, not what economic impact they have. It’s hard to know why the Iranians show up for negotiations unless sanctions are responsible.”

Three sets of high-level six-nation nuclear talks with Iran this past spring have failed to date to narrow differences on a possible confidence-building measure that would end Iran’s higher-level 20% enrichment. Washington will not agree to another P5+1 political directors meeting with Iran if there is no serious prospect of progress toward an agreement, sources told Al-Monitor. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and chief Iran nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili are due to confer this month to see if there’s a basis for further negotiations.

American diplomats said, however, there is significant value to the diplomatic channel despite the lack of progress to date.

“My feeling is it’s very, very important … to see if there is some give in Iran positions,” former US Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey said Tuesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “As we go down to the wire, there is some hope for that particular channel.”

Meantime, some Israeli analysts continue to believe Netanyahu will heed the advice of his military and intelligence chiefs who are warning against unilateral Israeli action.

“The chances for an Israeli strike are very low, given the objections inside the security establishment,” Noam Sheizaf wrote at Israeli online magazine +972. “I think that Netanyahu is now trying to negotiate an American promise to attack by a certain date in 2013. An American led attack would eliminate the risk of political fallout resulting from a military failure, and save Netanyahu the need to fight with the entire security establishment.”

American defense experts are not convinced the threat of an Israeli strike has receded.

“Israeli anxiety and [the] risk of [an Israeli] Iran strike [are]  real, but [Israeli] impatience [is] also meant to press the administration in the wake of the Romney trip,” former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl wrote on Twitter.

(U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (front, R) greet Israeli soldiers after a joint news conference during a visit to the Iron Dome defense system launch site in Ashkelon August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool.)

Romney comments irk Palestinians


GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney told donors at a Jerusalem fundraiser Monday that Jewish culture is one reason that Israel’s economy has been more successful than the Palestinians’, remarks that Palestinian leaders denounced as offensive.

“And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things,” Romney, seated next to Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, told some 40 donors at a $50,000 per person breakfast fundraiser at the King David Hotel Monday, the Associated Press reported:

“As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” he continued.

The remarks “not only offend Palestinians,” but are reminiscent of the stereotype that Jews are good with money, veteran US Middle East trouble shooter Aaron David Miller told Al Monitor Monday, adding: “Mitt Romney is no anti-Semite, he’s just not thinking before he talks.”

Palestinian leaders said the remarks were both uninformed and offensive.

“It is a racist statement and this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation,” Saeb Erekat, a senior advisor to Palestinian President Abbas, told the Associated Press.

“It seems to me this man (Romney) lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people,” Erekat added. “He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority.”

Romney, on his two-day trip to Israel, evinced little interest in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace. He declined to endorse the two-state solution–a long standing goal of US foreign policy going back 20 years. He also called Jerusalem the capital of Israel, but later equivocated on when the United States should move its embassy there from Tel Aviv. The matter is sensitive for Palestinians who consider East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Continue reading

Romney to Israeli paper: Both Obama and I say nuclear Iran unacceptable


GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has given two interviews to Israeli newspapers ahead of his arrival in Jerusalem Saturday night.

“I would treat Israel like the friend and ally it is,” Romney told Israel Hayom, the newspaper owned by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has donated millions of dollars to Republican and Israeli causes. Adelson, who owns a home in Israel, may attend a $50,000 a plate fundraiser for Romney in Israel Monday.

“I cannot imagine going to the United Nations, as Obama did, and criticizing Israel in front of the world,” Romney continued. “You don’t criticize your allies in public to achieve the applause of your foes.”

So Romney learned first-hand in London Thursday, as his perceived criticism of preparations for the London Olympics got his three-nation foreign trip off to a quite rocky start.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson–both conservatives–fiercely defended preparations for the London Olympic Games after Romney told NBC Wednesday he found some reports of some pre-Games snafus “disconcerting.”

“If Mitt Romney doesn’t like us, we shouldn’t care,” railed the headline from the conservative UK Telegraph Thursday. London mayor Boris Johnson later mocked Romney in front of a crowd of 60,000 in Hyde Park, asking: “Mitt Romney wants to know whether we’re ready! Are we ready?” .

Romney also gave an interview in London Thursday to Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper. (Being on foreign soil when the interview was conducted, he told the paper he was trying to refrain from politicizing foreign policy.)

Asked about his Iran policy, Romney said he, like President Obama, have both said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable:The military option is the least attractive option but should not be ruled out, he said.

“President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable,” Romney told Haaretz. “The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning: It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.”

“I am personally committed to take every step necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability,” Romney said.

In Israel, Romney will hold a breakfast fundraiser Monday (July 30) at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. He will also meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–an old friend from their days at the Boston Consulting Group; Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who served as the Obama campaign’s chief of Jewish outreach in 2008.

But even with the personal ties and partisan sympathies Romney shares with Netanyahu, the powers of his White House incumbent challenger to make policy, sign bills, and grab headlines are hard to match.

On Friday, President Obama signed “a new U.S.-Israel security pact …a move that could steal some of the headlines there” as Romney arrives,” Yahoo’s Olivier Knox noted.  Indeed.

Israeli leaders and American Jewish groups applauded Obama’s action Friday.

“The Government and the people of Israel express profound gratitude to President Barack Obama on his signing of the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act,” Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren said in a statement Friday. It “sends an unequivocal message of support to the people of Israel at a time of great uncertainty throughout the entire Middle East.”

The security pact bolsters the “crucial” US-Israel security alliance “by extending loan guarantees…authorizing American military stockpiles in Israel, and improving military and intelligence cooperation, particularly in missile defense,” the Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament said in a press statement.

Meantime, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta plans to travel to Israel, as well as Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia next week, the Pentagon announced Thursday.

The bill signing, as well as the Pentagon chief’s Israel trip, come “as Mitt Romney nears a visit to Israel with no power to provide security aid, unlike the incumbent,” CBS’s Mark Knoller noted.

(Photo: U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to the press following his meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron and British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne outside 10 Downing Street in London, July 26, 2012.   REUTERS/Jason Reed.)

Syria: ‘The next 24 hours are crucial’

By Barbara Slavin and Laura Rozen

The assassination Wednesday (July 18) of key members of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle marked a dramatic turning point in the Syrian rebellion, but the growing prospect of regime collapse seemed to offer no near-term reprieve from the bloodshed and chaos that have engulfed one of the Middle East’s most pivotal nations.

“The next 24 hours are crucial,” Aram Nerguizian, a military expert and Levant specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Al-Monitor after the deaths of Assad’s brother in law, defense minister and other key officials were announced by Syrian state television.

“Either the regime and the security services hang together and try to recalibrate from this … or we move on to next phase of the crisis: decay and truly sectarian strife with the potential for even deeper cantonization,” Nerguizian said.

“It could go either way at this point, either triggering rapid regime collapse or massive regime assaults,” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University who consults the Obama administration on the region, told Al Monitor by email Wednesday. “Either way I think, as I have for months, that Assad is doomed.  But his choices today will have a serious effect on the amount of bloodshed and pain Syrians will have to suffer.”

“Let’s hope that the momentum sustains itself and Assad flees,” Lynch said.  “We’re not there yet. …. Even if he goes there’s a lot of post-Assad issues for which nobody really prepared — the price of the fragmented opposition and power of armed groups.”

Indeed, Nerguizian last week predicted a “protracted civil war like in Lebanon or Algeria” even if Assad steps down. Tensions between majority Sunnis and Assad’s Alawite clan, as well as regional and economic inequities in Syria, ensure continuing bloodshed, he told an audience at CSIS.

The Syrian opposition remains divided, with no transitional government groomed to take Assad’s place as was the case in Libya.

The international community is also divided, with Russia and Iran clinging to the Assad regime despite its horrific crackdown on Syrians over the past 17 months. A UN mission whose main achievement has been to investigate some of the human rights atrocities that have taken place in the country is about to see its mandate expire unless a divided Security Council can agree on new terms for extending it. UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan called Wednesday for the UN Security Council to postpone a planned vote Wednesday on a new Syria resolution as diplomats consulted at the highest level on the unfolding situation.

In Washington, official reaction to developments was mixed. “There is real momentum against Assad, with increasing defections, and a strengthened and more united opposition that is operating across the country,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement, adding “it’s time for the Syrian people and the international community to focus on what comes next.” US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking Wednesday at the Pentagon with his British counterpart, had a more cautious take, saying events on the ground appeared to be “rapidly spinning out of control.” British Defense Secretary Phillip Hammond warned Assad that use of Syria’s substantial chemical weapons stockpile “would not be tolerated.”

Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov said a “decisive battle” was underway in Damascus, but reiterated Moscow’s opposition to any UN resolution that would authorize international intervention in the country. “Adopting a resolution against this backdrop would amount to a direct support for the revolutionary movement,” Lavrov told reporters at a news conference in Moscow Wednesday, Reuters reported

Randa Slim, a Syria expert at the New America Foundation, noted that the Syrian regime “still has a lot of firepower.” While she called the semi-decapitation of the government the “beginning of the end of the regime,” she said that it was possible that both Iran and Hezbollah would intervene more forcefully to try to rescue Assad. Continue reading

Syrian state TV: Syrian Defense Minister, Assad brother in law killed in suicide blast

Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Daoud Rajha and Bashar al-Assad’s powerful brother-in-law were killed in a suicide bombing of a cabinet meeting in Damascus Wednesday, Syrian state TV reported.

“The Minister of Defense was martyred by the terrorist bombing that targeted the national security building,” the State TV report said, according to the BBC.

Assef Shawkat, the husband of Assad’s sister and a senior defense official, was also killed in the blast, Syrian state TV later reported.

Several other ministers were reported to be wounded, some critically. Later reports said former Defense Minister and Assistant Vice President Hassan Turkmani subsequently died of wounds sustained in the blast.

The blast reportedly occurred at a national security building in the city’s Rawda district, which has been sealed off. Unconfirmed reports said the suicide bomber was a body guard for one of the ministers attending the meeting. The Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the attack.

Syria’s Information Minister went on TV Wednesday to condemn the attack, blaming it on foreign-backed terrorists.

The attacks on Assad’s inner circle suggest the Syrian rebellion is entering a dramatic new phase after  four days of intense fighting in the Syrian capital.

“The demise of Rajha and Shawkat represents a partial decapitation of the Assad’s regime,” journalist Hisham Melhem wrote on Twitter. “Assad’s house is crumbling.”

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking Wednesday at the Pentagon with his British counterpart Phillip Hammond, said events on the ground in Syria appeared to be “rapidly spinning out of control.”

“The violence there has only gotten worse and the loss of lives has only increased, which tells us that this is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control,” Panetta said.

Hammond warned Assad not to use his chemical weapons. “We will not tolerate the use or the proliferation of those chemical weapons,” Hammond said, the Associated Press reported.

Russian  Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a “decisive battle” appeared to be underway in Damascus.

But he reiterated Russia’s intention to block a UK-drafted resolution which had been due to be debated at the United Nations Security Council Wednesday. The session would likely be postponed, diplomats told Agence France Press.  Continue reading

Clinton in Israel: Iran nuclear proposals “non-starters”

Iran’s proposals to date in three rounds of nuclear talks with the P5+1 are “non-starters,” and suggest Iran’s leadership has not yet made the decision to compromise on its nuclear program, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday in Israel.

“I made very clear that the proposals that we have seen from Iran thus far within the P5+1 negotiations are non-starters,” Clinton told reporters after a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday, CNN reported.

“Despite three rounds of talks, Iran has yet to make a strategic decision to address the international community’s concerns and fulfill their obligations under the IAEA and the UN Security Council,” Clinton said. “The choice is ultimately Iran’s to make.”

Iran is willing to discuss halting its 20% enrichment, but has balked to date at doing so without getting upfront recognition of its right to enrich for energy purposes.

“The issue of the 20% enrichment …is an issue that could be discussed and decided,” Iran’s UN envoy Mohammad Khazaee told Al Monitor in an interview July 12. “It is not off the table. … It is possible to close the gap.”

Clinton conducted the most high-profile visit of a recent “cavalcade” of high-ranking American officials traveling to Israel to huddle on Iran. Among the parade of senior US visitors: National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Chollet, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in the coming weeks.

The intense US-Israel consultations are aimed, from Washington’s perspective, at trying to reassure Israel’s leadership not to conduct strikes on Iran, likely in the fall. Despite Clinton’s assertion Monday that the United States and Israel are currently “on the same page” on Iran, Israeli leaders have apparently not eased American concerns about their intentions.

“For the first time on the agenda are serious crippling sanctions,” former Israeli Knesset Defense and Security Committee member Ephraim Sneh said at a July 12th round-table hosted by the Israel Policy Forum in New York, referring to tough new European Union sanctions on the import of Iranian oil, which went into effect July 1. “We have hardly two months to implement them. I advise those who can implement them, ‘Don’t put Israel in a corner.’”

Asked what specifically is in two months–i.e., September, Sneh said that Israel’s more limited military capabilities constrain its timetable and calendar for action. Continue reading

Panetta calls Egypt’s Tantawi

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the head of Egypt’s ruling military council Field Marshal Tantawi Saturday to discuss the Egyptian constitutional court’s controversial ruling  to dissolve parliament, the Pentagon said.

“Secretary Panetta highlighted the need to move forward expeditiously with Egypt’s political transition, including conducting new legislative elections as soon as possible,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement.

“Field Marshal Tantawi reiterated the SCAF’s commitment to hold free and fair presidential elections as scheduled and to transfer power to a democratically elected government by July 1,” Little’s statement said. Continue reading