July 30, 2012 | Politico
Some Questionable State Department Actions
July 30, 2012 | Politico
Some Questionable State Department Actions
Prepared by staff at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
1) Global Counterterrorism Conference Without Israel
The Global Counterterrorism Forum was founded on Sept. 22, 2011, by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It brings together 29 countries and the European Union to discuss ways to strengthen security and limit extremism. The forum meets with experts, as well as representatives from international organizations, including the United Nations. Israel is not a member.
In May 2010, the Israeli Defense Forces boarded the Mavi Marmara, part of a Turkish sponsored flotilla to Gaza. Fighting broke out, and nine Turkish activists were killed. The Turkish government has since demanded an apology from the Israeli government, compensation for the victims’ families, and an end to the blockade of Gaza.
When these stipulations were not realized, despite U.S. pressure, the Turkish government indicted four influential Israeli military officials in May 2012.
Sen. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), as well as others in Congress, say this fractured relationship prevented Israel from attending the forum’s meeting on June 7. Some Israeli officials said this as well. They contend that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pressured the U.S. to keep Israel out.
But other Israeli Foreign Ministry officials denied this. “We did not plan on going to that meeting anyway,” the officials said, “…We will take part in working groups on different issues of this forum; that’s confirmed. We’re not estranged.”
The meeting was sponsored by the United States and held in Turkey. The U.S. sponsorship led Lieberman, Kirk and other members of Congress, to condemn the U.S. government on June 10 for its acquiescence to Turkey’s demands. The State Department’s official response stated, “Our idea with the GCTF was to bring together a limited number of traditional donors, front line states, and emerging powers develop a more robust, yet representative, counterterrorism capacity-building platform. A number of our close partners with considerable experience countering and preventing terrorism are not included among the GCTF’s founding members.”
Lieberman and Kirk, however, argued that Israel’s unparalleled experience with countering terrorism, especially when compared to forum members like Switzerland, should have merited an invitation.
Israel had been specifically excluded, according to a July 10, Washington Free Beacon story, which cited a congressional source.
Meanwhile, Maria Otero, undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and Human Rights, in a speech at the Global Counterterrorism Forum High-Level Conference on Victims of Terrorism, in Madrid, Spain, did not mention Israel and Israelis as victims of terrorism.
Reporters who asked the State Department about this were first stonewalled. Finally, on July 12, State officials said, “We believe that Israel would make a valuable contribution to the Global Counterterrorism Forum. We have raised the issue of Israeli participation in relevant GCTF activities with a number of GCTF partners at very senior levels. We will continue to do so as we move forward. Our discussion with Israel concerning the GCTF – our discussions have focused on Israeli participation and relevant activities to allow Israel to share its counterterrorism expertise with CT practitioners from GCTF-member and other countries… So Israel is one potential member….”
2) Engagement with Taliban
For more than a year, U.S. officials have attempted to engage with the Taliban. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the talks with the Taliban were “not a pleasant business, but a necessary one.”
In December 2011, the United States was reportedly considering transferring a group of Guantanamo detainees to Afghan authorities in exchange for confidence-building measures from the Taliban. On the same day as the cited Reuters story, Vice President Joe Biden said that “the Taliban per se is not our enemy…There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests.”
In January 2012, The New York Times reported that U.S. officials had been meeting for more than a year with a representative of Afghanistan’s Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar. The preconditions, set by the United States and since dropped, were based on the Taliban laying down their arms, accepting the Afghan Constitution and ending ties with Al Qaeda. The talks centered on the Taliban potentially opening a political office in Qatar as well as attempting to reach a political solution in Afghanistan.
“The reality is,” Clinton said, “we never have the luxury of negotiating for peace with our friends…If you’re sitting across the table discussing a peaceful resolution to a conflict, you are sitting across from people who you, by definition, don’t agree with and who you may previously have been across a battlefield from.”
In response to the conditions, the Taliban said that opening a Qatar office “does not mean a surrender from Jihad and neither is it connected to an acceptance of the constitution of the stooge Kabul administration but rather the Islamic Emirate is utilizing its political wing alongside its military presence and Jihad in order to realize the national and Islamic aspirations of the nation and its martyrs.”
While U.S. officials remained optimistic about the talks, many in the intelligence community were pessimistic. They warned “the Taliban is more interested in continuing fighting than making peace.”
In mid-March 2012, the Taliban suspended all talks in Qatar. The negotiations reportedly stalled over a potential prisoner swap — the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five senior Taliban members now being held at Guantanamo. A week after the suspension, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta denied a request to transfer the five Guantanamo detainees.
The Washington Post reported in May that U.S. officials and Taliban representatives had not met since January. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai recently asked Germany to help resuscitate in the stalled talks.
3) Engagement with Muslim Brotherhood
Since the outbreak of protests in Egypt, the Obama administration has kept a keen eye on events there. The administration has recently adopted a policy of engagement with all. This has led to extensive outreach and meetings with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood as well as Salafist parties.
Following the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt’s parliamentary election, a senior Obama administration official said, “There doesn’t seem to me to be any other way to do it, except to engage with the party that won the election.” A senior State Department official had said in April, “Now that we have killed most of Al Qaeda, now that people have come to see legitimate means of expression, people who once might have gone into Al Qaeda see an opportunity for a legitimate Islamism.”
A Muslim Brotherhood delegation in April visited the United States for meetings with high-level administration officials, including William Burns, the deputy secretary of state, and Jeff Feltman, assistant secretary Jeff Feltman. The delegation also took part in a conference sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which included Islamist delegations from Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco. The visit was a charm offensive, according to Eric Trager of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, but administration officials must remember “the Muslim Brotherhood’s English-language moderation always seems to stand at odds with its truly radical ideology.”
A delegation of Egyptian parliamentarians in June came to Washington for meetings with administration officials. The group included Hani Nour Eldin, a member of the Gamaa Islamiya, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. “By U.S. law,” according to a Daily Beast report, “that [Eldin’s membership in a terrorist group] means he would be denied a visa to enter the country. Nonetheless, he says, he got a visa from the State Department.”
During a meeting with Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Eldin asked for the transfer of Omar Abdel Rahman to an Egyptian prison. According to Juan Zarate, a former Bush administration official, the incident exemplified that, “The United States has to walk a fine line when engaging extremists who are now entering the political process amidst revolution.”
Since the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi, the United States has continued its outreach. This included Clinton visiting there, as well as an invitation for Morsi to meet President Barack Obama in Washington.
According Michael Hirsh of the National Journal, “The president realizes he has no choice but to cultivate the Muslim Brotherhood and other relatively ‘moderate’ Islamist groups emerging as lead political players out of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.”
Though some view engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood as “understandable,” they also caution that the U.S. must not allow the group to get away with its tradition of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric, and ensure that Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel is upheld.
4) Avoiding Identifying Jerusalem as Capital of Israel
Another controversial issue is the administration’s decision to not identify Jerusalem as either Israel’s capital or even part of Israel. This was most evident in the recent scrubbing of older documents using “Jerusalem, Israel” as well as during State Department press briefings.
Daniel Halper of The Weekly Standard reported in August 2011, that the “White House has apparently gone through its website, cleansing any reference to Jerusalem as being in Israel.” While some defended the Obama administration, by suggesting the Bush administration had a similar policy, former Bush administration official Elliot Abrams dismissed this as “just wrong.”
Omri Ceren pointed out, “Sometimes Bush-era White House photos explicitly identified Jerusalem as being in Israel and sometimes they didn’t — just like sometimes they explicitly identified Tel Aviv as being in Israel and sometimes they didn’t.”
Ceren noted in the same article, that the Obama administration had also altered some official State Department documents, dating back to at least 2002 and 2003. The administration “erased parts of publicly available documents,” Ceren wrote, “in a brazen attempt to trick people into thinking that other administrations had taken positions they had not.” POLITICO later reported that Nixon-era as well as Carter-era documents also used “Jerusalem, Israel.”
A State Department March 26 press release read: “Acting Under Secretary Kathleen Stephens Travels to Algiers, Doha, Amman, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.” This had, however, been altered, since the original had separated Jerusalem from Israel and read: “Acting Under Secretary Kathleen Stephens Travels to Algeria, Qatar, Jordan, Jerusalem and Israel.”
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland claimed the next day that, “The first media note was issued in error, without appropriate clearances.” When pressed on whether the U.S. views Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Nuland stuck to the response, “We are not going to prejudge the outcome of those negotiations, including the final status of Jerusalem.”
Foundation for the Defense of Democracies is a nonpartisan policy group set up after Sept. 11, 2001 to help defend the U.S., the West, Israel and other democracies against terrorism.