This Week in Washington - August 10, 2012

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DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 Appropriations/Sequestration.  Congress is in recess until September 10th.  On Wednesday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) discussed the potential impacts of budget sequestration’s across-the-board cuts to science, technology, innovation, and education funding.  OSTP officials said the Administration would comply with a bill the President signed Tuesday, which requires a report to Congress within 30 days detailing the implementation of sequestration-mandated cuts. 

Because lawmakers left Washington without passing a Farm Bill, on Tuesday, the President announced steps to assist those affected by the drought.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will allocate approximately $30 million to those whose crops or herds have suffered and to rehabilitate affected lands. The USDA also will reduce interest rates on emergency loans and allow a delay in interest premiums, while other agencies will provide regulatory relief to affected farmers, ranchers, and small businesses.

On Sunday, a mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin left seven people dead, including the alleged gunman who reportedly had ties to white supremacist groups.  President Obama pledged support in a statement shortly afterwards to “provide whatever … is necessary to the officials who are responding to this tragic shooting.”  The President also called Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday to discuss the tragedy and reiterate the importance of the U.S. Sikh community.  In the coming days, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R), and other dignitaries are expected to attend a memorial service in Milwaukee in honor of the victims.  Meanwhile, Jared Loughner, the gunman in the 2011 assassination attempt of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona), pled guilty Wednesday and received a life sentence.  [Congresswoman Giffords expressed satisfaction with the plea agreement.] 

On Monday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration successfully landed the Curiosity, a roving laboratory, on Mars.  The President stated that the landing “marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future.”  On Tuesday, Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee cited a study by the Government Accountability Office on allegedly outdated radiation exposure and testing requirements for cell phones, calling for the Federal Communications Commission to coordinate updated research.  The White House stated Wednesday that President Obama opposes the Boy Scouts of America’s recently reaffirmed policy to exclude gays as members, but the President will not resign as the Scouts’ honorary president.  With cybersecurity legislation stalled in the Senate, Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan announced Wednesday that the White House will move forward with cyber initiatives to bolster the country’s defense of critical infrastructure.  The U.S. Postal Service announced Thursday that it lost a larger-than-expected $5.2 billion last quarter, but lawmakers are not expected to address postal overhaul legislation until after the election at the earliest.  

Political News.  Winners of Tuesday’s congressional primaries include:  Congressman John Conyers (D) in Michigan’s 13th District; Congressman Gary Peters (D) who defeated Congressman Hansen Clarke (D) in Michigan’s 14th District; Congressman Lacy Clay (D) who defeated Congressman Russ Carnahan (D) in Missouri’s 1st District; and Congressman Todd Akin (R-Missouri), who will face Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill in a highly competitive general election for Senate.  President Obama spent two days this week campaigning in the swing state of Colorado, rebutting Governor Mitt Romney’s accusations of gutting the 1996 welfare reform law.  The Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee announced Monday that they raised a combined $101 million in July.  On Thursday, 188 House Democrats sent a letter to college and university presidents, urging their institutions to actively educate students in the federal electoral process, noting that “[h]istorically, students have faced unique barriers to the polls”.

FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS   

Syria.  Last Sunday, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab became the highest-profile official to defect from the Assad regime when he sought refuge in Jordan.  Hijab reportedly declared his allegiance to the Syrian revolution.  On Thursday, President Bashar al-Assad named Hijab’s replacement, elevating Health Minister Wael al-Halki.  Also last weekend, Colonel Yarub Shara, the head of the Damascus branch of Political Security defected, reportedly with two government ministers and three brigadier generals.  Syria’s first astronaut also reportedly fled to Turkey and publicly joined the opposition.  The State Department noted the defections Monday, saying these actions indicate the regime is “crumbling and losing its grip on power.”  Thursday, after the regime intensified its offensive on Syria’s largest city of Aleppo, the Free Syrian Army confirmed it had lost control of the strategic Salah al-Din district.  Also Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called for "serious and inclusive" talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups, as he opened a meeting in Tehran on Syria attended by representatives from several nations – none of which have called for Assad to step aside.  Speaking in South Africa the day before, Secretary Clinton warned “[t]hose who are attempting to exploit the misery of the Syrian people, whether by sending in proxies or sending in terrorist fighters, must recognize that that will not be tolerated.”  Reports emerged this week of increasing anger among Syrian rebels regarding the U.S. Government’s position of only providing nonlethal assistance, with a main complaint being NATO’s unwillingness to institute a no-fly zone over Syria.  Friday, the Treasury Department designated the terrorist group Hezbollah for providing support to the Government of Syria.  The designation notes Hezbollah’s support has been coordinated with Iran’s IRGC Qods force.

Iran.  On Friday, the Administration imposed sanctions on the Syrian state-run oil company Sytrol for conducting business with Iran’s energy sector.  The State Department stated the “United States remains deeply concerned about the close ties shared by the Iranian and Syrian regimes and is committed to using every tool available to prevent regional destabilization.”  Late Monday, a New York banking regulator issued an order alleging Standard Chartered knowingly circumvented U.S. sanctions between 2001 and 2007 and may have laundered $250 billion that allegedly helped facilitate the financing of Iran’s nuclear program.  White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the U.S. Government takes such alleged sanctions violations "extremely seriously".  The media reported Standard Chartered has been in talks with U.S. authorities over its Iran transactions since early 2010.  In the Gulf of Oman Thursday, the U.S. Navy rescued 10 Iranian sailors from their burning vessel.  This is the second rescue of Iranian sailors by the U.S. Navy this year.  

This week, Secretary Clinton concluded her ten-day Africa trip.  Last weekend, the Secretary stopped in Kenya and Malawi.  Last Saturday, President Obama praised the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel’s announcement of a brokered agreement between Sudan and South Sudan on oil revenue.  On Monday, Secretary Clinton was in South Africa, meeting with Nelson Mandela and participating in the U.S.-South Africa Business Partnership Summit.  In Johannesburg Tuesday, the Secretary met with South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and African Union Chair-Designate Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.  Wednesday, in Cape Town, Secretary Clinton participated in a ceremony shifting administration of South Africa’s PEPFAR program fully to local control.  In Abuja Thursday, security (especially Boko Haram) and bilateral issues reportedly dominated discussions between Secretary Clinton and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.  On Friday, in Accra, Ghana, the Secretary attended the funeral of President John Atta-Mills, who died on July 24th.  Later that day in Cotonou, Secretary Clinton met with Benin President Boni Yayi.

On Wednesday, Secretary Clinton congratulated the Libyan people on the seating of its democratically elected General National Congress.  She noted the parliament “has important work ahead as it faces the challenges of building democratic institutions and ensuring the drafting of a new constitution through a transparent process, protecting the universal rights of all Libyans, promoting accountable and honest government, and establishing security throughout the country.”  Late Thursday, the new Libyan parliament elected former opposition leader Mohammed el-Megarif as its president.  Also on Wednesday, as the Egyptian military launched airstrikes against militants in the Sinai Peninsula, Deputy National Security Adviser Brennan defended U.S. policy in Yemen, offering the Administration’s continued support for development assistance and targeted drone strikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 

Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro spoke in Washington this week about a “new business model” that will allow for continued improvements in collaboration between the State and Defense Departments.  The Assistant Secretary was referring, in part, to the newly created Global Security Contingency Fund, a $250 million joint account that will allow for quick-response financing for foreign military forces and counterterrorism units, as well as some emergency development and infrastructure projects. 

On Monday, President Obama spoke with Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on the eurozone, reiterating his support for the Primer Minister’s efforts to improve Spain’s economy.  Tuesday, State urged Bangladesh to continue to allow NGOs to administer humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya, other vulnerable individuals fleeing the violence in Burma’s Rakhine State, and the local Bangladeshi population in the Bangladesh-Burma border region.  The State Department expressed concern Wednesday over recent events in Belarus, including the decision of the Belarusian government to expel the Swedish ambassador and to force Sweden to recall its entire diplomatic staff in Minsk.  Also Wednesday, the State Department congratulated Timor-Leste for the democratic election of its fifth constitution under the leadership of Prime Minister Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao.  On Friday, Secretary Clinton “strongly” condemned the Thursday suicide attack in Kunar province, Afghanistan, which killed a USAID Foreign Service Officer, three ISAF service members and an Afghan civilian, and injured a State Department Foreign Service Officer.