When Policy Battles Break Out in Public — Holy Dissent, What a Mess!

Posted: 8:26 pm ET
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Also see “Dissent Channel” Message on Syria Policy Signed by 51 @StateDept Officers Leaks NYT Publishes Draft Version of @StateDept Dissent Memo on Syria Without the Names of Signers from 

 

Here is the DPB for today, June 20 with the State Department spox answering questions about the “it’s good” response from Secretary Kerry — apparently, he wasn’t referring to the punctuation:

QUESTION: All right, let’s start with Syria. Earlier today, in one of the events that you just mentioned, the Secretary told our colleague Abigail that he had read the dissent channel memo —

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: — and that he – that it looked good to him, or he said something like, “It’s good,” and that he would —

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: — he was going to meet them. Can you elaborate at all?

MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t know how much more I can —

QUESTION: Well, what does he mean when he said it’s good?

MR KIRBY: I think – I think —

QUESTION: I mean, does that mean he agrees?

MR KIRBY: Well, I’m – again, I’m limited in what I can talk about in terms of the content of a dissent channel message. I think what the Secretary was referring to was the – that he did read it and that I – that he found it to be a well-written argument. But I’m not going to talk about the content. And as for meeting with the authors, he has expressed an interest in meeting with at least some of them. I mean, there’s a lot of them, so I don’t know that we’ll be able to pull off a single meeting with each and every one of them there, but he has expressed an interest in talking to them, and we’ll do that in due course.

QUESTION: So when you say it was a – what did you say, it was a well-presented argument?

MR KIRBY: What I – what I —

QUESTION: Well-written argument?

MR KIRBY: What I think the Secretary was referring to was that he read the paper and thought that it was – thought that it was well written, that it was good in that regard. I won’t talk to the content or his views of the content.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, without talking about what the actual content was, when you say it was well written or the argument is a good one, does that mean that he is prepared to – whatever it says, I’m not asking you about content – that he is prepared to make the case for those – for the positions that are articulated in this cable —

MR KIRBY: Well, two – two thoughts there. First —

QUESTION: — within the Administration?

MR KIRBY: Two thoughts there. First, as you know, the policy planning staff will be preparing a response, as is required. That response is not yet finished, and we don’t publicize – any more than we publicize the contents of dissent channel messages, we don’t publicize the response. But the response is being prepared. As for any espousal of the ideas before, during or after the fact of them being proffered in a dissent channel message, the Secretary very much keeps private his advice and counsel to the President on policy matters, and we’re going to – obviously, we’re going to respect that.

QUESTION: Well, since this became public last week, you will have noticed numerous articles, numerous – or numerous reports saying outright and suggesting strongly that, in fact, the Secretary agrees with many if not all of the points made in this cable. Are you not – are his comments today not indicative of that?

MR KIRBY: His comments today – I would not characterize his comments today as being indicative of a full-throated endorsement of the views in this particular dissent channel message. Again, I can’t speak to content. What I can tell you is a couple of things. One, obviously, whatever views, advice and counsel he presents to the President need to remain private, and they will. And so I won’t get into that. But then also, as I said Friday, he has made no bones about the fact that he is not content with the status quo in Syria. We are not content with the status quo in Syria. Too many people are dying, too many people are being denied basic life-sustaining material – food, water, medicine – and there’s been too little progress on the political track.

QUESTION: Yeah, but —

MR KIRBY: But if you also look – but if you also look at what else he said this morning – I mean, I know that Abigail shouted out a question, but if you look at the transcript of what else he had to say to those college students, he talked about how important it is that we continue to work through a transitional governing process in Syria, and that that is the best way forward – a political solution is still the preferred path forward.

QUESTION: Right, but when you talk about how no one – you’re not, he’s not, no one is satisfied with the status quo – this is a bit of what is actually going on on the ground in Syria – clearly, no one is. But this isn’t a question about the status quo on the situation in Syria. This is a question about the status quo of the policy. So are you not in a position to be able to say that the Secretary is not – that he doesn’t like the status quo, the policy status quo, the U.S. policy status quo?

MR KIRBY: Nobody’s happy with the status quo of events on the ground, and that is why —

QUESTION: Yeah, but what about the policy?

MR KIRBY: — but – I’m getting there.

QUESTION: All right.

MR KIRBY: That is why, as – and I mentioned this Friday – that is why we do consider – we are considering, we are discussing other alternatives, other options that may be applied, mindful that we are, that the current approach is, without question, struggling. But as the President said himself, none of those other options – be they military or not in nature – are better than – in terms of the long-term outcome, are going to be better than the political solution we’re trying to pursue.

QUESTION: Okay. This will be my last one. I – because I’m just a – the – so you – you’re – what you’re saying is that his comment, “It’s good,” refers —

QUESTION: Very good.

QUESTION: Sorry?

QUESTION: Very good.

QUESTION: It’s very good – sorry, it’s very good – that refers to how it was put together, like the grammar and the sentence structure, and not the actual content? Because that strikes me as being a bit —

MR KIRBY: No, I’m not saying he was talking about punctuation. I mean, I —

QUESTION: Oh, okay, so —

MR KIRBY: Obviously – obviously, he read the memo and found it to be a well-crafted argument, well enough that he feels it’s worth meeting with the authors. Now, what exactly did he find in Abigail’s shouted-out – quote, “Very good,” I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to him about every element of it. And again, I’m not going to talk about the content of it from here.

QUESTION: Well, so you can’t – you’re not in a position to say that the “It’s very good” means that he is prepared to make those same arguments within the – as the Administration deliberates?

MR KIRBY: No, I’m not prepared to – I’m not prepared to say that.

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Ambassadors Crocker, Ford, Jeffrey and Neumann: Why we need to keep our ambassador in Yemen

Posted: 01:10 EST

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Ryan Crocker was ambassador to Kuwait, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Afghanistan.  Robert Ford was ambassador to Algeria and Syria.  James Jeffrey was ambassador to Albania, Turkey and Iraq and deputy National Security Advisor. Ronald Neumann was ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan. The four former ambassadors who served in some of our most difficult posts overseas authored the following piece:

Why we need to keep our ambassador in Yemen

via The Hill, February 6, 2015:

Yemen’s increasing tumult recently led two members of Congress to call for the withdrawal of U.S. Ambassador Matthew Tueller.  We appreciate the concern for Matt Tueller, someone we all know and esteem.  Yet we disagree both that the decision should be made solely on the basis of danger and that it should be made primarily in Washington.

No group could take security more seriously than we do.  Each of us in our own diplomatic service has been shot at, rocketed, and mortared.  One survived a bombing and another missed a bomb by minutes.  We have all buried colleagues who were less lucky than we.  We know that even the best reasoned security decisions can be wrong.  And yet we disagree.

Yemen exemplifies why American diplomats need to take personal risks in our national interest.  Yemen teeters on the edge of civil war.  The fight there with Al-Qaeda is far from successful but is not yet lost.  At this critical time engagement and judgment on the ground are essential to try to stabilize the situation before Yemen slides into such complete chaos that outsiders are helpless to influence the situation.

The so-called Houthis (a name the group doesn’t use) who have seized power in Yemen’s capital have Iranian friends but the relationship is unclear and we should not jump to facile assumptions of a close Iranian alliance.  We need understanding of what the Houthis seek, whether we share interests and whether our financial and military assistance can help leverage political stabilization; the kind of judgments that can only be made on the ground in an evolving situation.

The Saudis have strong interests in Yemen and strong influence with some tribes. We should try to cooperate with the Saudis because of their strong influences, our broad relationship with them and the depth of their interest.  But we cannot rely on their or anyone else’s analysis.  Further we need to be aware of long developed Saudi views that sometimes prejudice their recommendations. In short, only if we are making our own analysis on the ground can we even begin to have a dialogue of equals with the Saudis.

We still provide critical support to the political transition despite the turmoil.  This aid needs close coordination with the UN mediator who is taking his own risks.

We are maintaining a military involvement in Yemen, both working with some Yemeni forces and periodically striking al-Qaeda elements.   At this politically sensitive time of interaction between multiple tribal and political groups in Yemen we must have up to the minute judgment on whether a given strike will influence or, potentially, ruin political negotiations to stabilize the country.  There is no one-size fits all judgment.  The call cannot be made from a distance or by relying only on technical intelligence because it is fundamentally a matter of political calculation.

The interaction with key players in Yemen can only be maintained by an ambassador.  Lower ranking officials, no matter how smart or how good their Arabic—Ambassador Tueller’s is among the best in the Foreign Service—cannot interact at the same senior levels as can the Ambassador.  For dealing with allies and local parties, coordinating our military and political instruments of influence, and providing Washington with judgments unattainable in any other way we need our ambassador on the ground as long as he can possibly function.

The issue must not be only one of risk but of whether the risks can be mitigated through intelligence and security precautions.  Mitigation does not mean one is secure but it lowers the level of risk and can include significant reduction of embassy personnel.  But the ambassador should be the last, not the first, out.

The time may come when Ambassador Tueller has to leave not withstanding all of the above.  The risks may become so high that they cannot be mitigated.  Or the situation may be so chaotic that he cannot function and we are painfully aware that civilian lives as well as those of possible military rescue elements are at stake in any such situation.

But even then the decision to evacuate, in Yemen as in cases that will arise in the future, should be driven by those directly responsible beginning and strongly influenced by the ambassador on the ground in consultation with the embassy security advisor.  The ambassador will have to calmly weigh risk against mission utility.

We have each been there and we know how difficult this is, how tempting it may be to stay just a little too long, or, on the other hand, and how hard it can be to resist Washington’s concerns    But the fact remains that no one is better placed to evaluate the local scene and make the decision than the Ambassador and no one else will pay the same price if the decision is wrong.  Washington should do everything it can to secure the embassy.  But it must understand the supreme value of keeping a highly qualified ambassador in Yemen if at all possible.

Ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller  (photo by US Embassy Yemen/FB)

Ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller
(photo by US Embassy Yemen/FB)

 

Last month, Senator Dianne Feinstein made news for wanting the embassy in Yemen evacuated ASAP.  On January 28, the Boston Herald also reported that Congressman Stephen Lynch had urged President Obama to pull Ambassador Matthew Tueller out of Yemen, amid fears of a terror attack similar to one that occurred in Libya in 2012.

Politico’s Michael Crowley did an excellent piece on our man in Yemen here. Ambassador Crocker who served with Ambassador Tueller in Kuwait and Iraq quipped, “He personifies one of my mantras for service in the Middle East: Don’t panic.”

Learn more about U.S.interest in Yemen via CRS — Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations | Jan 21, 2015.

 

 

 

Still No Junkyard Dog? Senator Cruz Warns He’ll Place a Hold on All State Dept Nominations

— By Domani Spero
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) today released the following statement regarding President Obama’s failure to nominate an Inspector General (IG) for the U.S. Department of State. IGs are congressionally mandated officers who provide independent agency oversight.

The President’s failure to nominate a State Department Inspector General since taking office in 2009 is unacceptable. The position has been vacant for almost 2,000 days. This is a crucial oversight position and should be a priority for an agency facing substantial management challenges.

While several federal agencies are operating without a Senate-confirmed Inspector General, only the State Department has been without a credible and independent Inspector General for so long.

During the last five years, there have been deadly attacks on U.S. diplomatic personnel in Libya, mismanagement of security contractors at our embassy in Afghanistan, and hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars wasted for police training in Iraq. These issues highlight the State Department’s need for an Inspector General as soon as possible.

Until the President acts, I have notified Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that I will place a hold on all State Department nominations.

According to the Project on Government Oversight, the State Department’s Inspector General  has been vacant since January 16, 2008.  At 1,988 days and counting, the vacancy has been the longest unfilled position among the government watchdogs.  After over 600 days of vacancy, President Obama on June 10, 2013 did nominate Michael G. Carroll as the IG for USAID.

State Department sources apparently told The Daily Beast that outgoing Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford might be in contention for the IG job.  We don’t think that’s even permissible because he is still an active FS officer. And if he retires and is appointed IG, he would be in the same status as the current Acting IG Harold Geisel who is a retired FSO.  Ambassador Geisel, by the way, agrees that a Foreign Service officer cannot be an IG.  Below is an excerpt from his oral history interview.  The Sherman he refers to here is Sherman Funk who was named Inspector General for the State Department in 1987.

Q: The idea being to put somebody in who was not Foreign Service.

GEISEL: That is correct.

Q: Sort of, as I think they called it, a junkyard dog.

GEISEL: That’s what Sherman called it. He said his job was to be a junkyard dog. Now, the inspector general act did not require a non-Foreign Service type that was Jesse Helms who attached some legislation to something else that said a Foreign Service officer cannot be the IG. And after having served as the acting IG, I think that was one of the wisest things that Jesse Helms ever put into legislation because it’s impossible for a Foreign Service type who’s an honorable person to be IG when stuff is coming in over the transom about his friends.

Q: Yes.

GEISEL: I had to disqualify myself a few times. I would sign papers, my counsel would say you know this person, you’re going to sign this but you’re just going to see the person’s name but we’re not briefing you on this. Then I would be out of it and I would designate someone else to receive the work and to brief the deputy secretary about it. It didn’t happen too often but it happened.

Yup, the State Department needs a junkyard dog.  It needed that dog yesterday.

The State Department’s Patrick Ventrell says that “the Secretary and the President have identified an excellent candidate for Inspector General for the State Department, and we look forward to the nomination becoming public after the vetting and paperwork process is complete.”

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State Dept Suspends US Embassy Operations in #Syria

The State Department suspended all embassy operations in Syria today.  Below is the official presser:

The United States has suspended operations of our Embassy in Damascus as of February 6. Ambassador Ford and all American personnel have now departed the country.

The recent surge in violence, including bombings in Damascus on December 23 and January 6, has raised serious concerns that our Embassy is not sufficiently protected from armed attack. We, along with several other diplomatic missions, conveyed our security concerns to the Syrian government but the regime failed to respond adequately.

Ambassador Ford has left Damascus but he remains the United States Ambassador to Syria and its people. As the President’s representative, he will continue his work and engagement with the Syrian people as head of our Syria team in Washington. Together with other senior U.S. officials, Ambassador Ford will maintain contacts with the Syrian opposition and continue our efforts to support the peaceful political transition which the Syrian people have so bravely sought.

As the Secretary told the Security Council on January 31, we continue to be gravely concerned by the escalation of violence in Syria caused by the regime’s blatant defiance of its commitments to the action plan it agreed to with the Arab League. The deteriorating security situation that led to the suspension of our diplomatic operations makes clear once more the dangerous path Assad has chosen and the regime’s inability to fully control Syria. It also underscores the urgent need for the international community to act without delay to support the Arab League’s transition plan before the regime’s escalating violence puts a political solution out of reach and further jeopardizes regional peace and security.

The embassy’s February 6 Warden Message to US citizens says that “all official U.S. embassy personnel and their family members have departed.”  [WaPo is reporting that the evacuees include Ambassador Ford and 16 other employees].  It also indicates that the Polish government, acting through its Embassy in Damascus, will now serve as protecting power for U.S. interests in Syria.  For emergency assistance, U.S. citizens should now contact the U.S. Interests Section by telephone at 963 954 666 693 or by  e-mail at damaszek.usint@msz.gov.pl.

 

Inquiries regarding U.S. citizens in Syria may also be directed to SyriaEmergencyUSC@state.gov.  Callers in the United States and Canada may dial the toll free number 1-888-407-4747.  Callers outside the United States and Canada may dial 1-202-501-4444. Note that neither U.S. passports nor visas to the United States are issued in Damascus.

Read the full message here.

 

 

 


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