All Hands Go East

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg will head to Beijing next week for discussions with the Chinese leadership about tensions on the Korean peninsula. He will be traveling with Jeffrey Bader, NSC Senior Director for Asian Affairs, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and special envoy Sung Kim. On December 16, the group will split up, with Bader returning to Washington, Campbell heading to Tokyo and Kim visiting Seoul. Rumor has it that New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson might be entering the fray as well. He may travel to North Korea next week at the invitation of some of Pyongyang’s top officials. Richardson is a former special envoy to North Korea.

But today it was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen’s turn. In South Korea, Mullen echoed administration officials’ recent criticisms of China. He said that Beijing has “enormous influence” over Pyongyang and because of that, a “unique responsibility.” It’s about time, then, for China “to step up to that responsibility and guide the North.” He went on, criticizing “even tacit approval of Pyongyang’s brazenness” and its impact on countries in the region.

Accounts of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s visit to Afghanistan show that he’s getting a very real impression of the conditions on the ground. The reports from forces in the east of the country were a bit grimmer than the “tremendous” progress Gates’s spokesman Geoff Morrell has mentioned and General David Petraeus’s comments on how far the war has come. Commanders in the region told Gates of an uptick in fighting over the past few months with a surge of militants coming over the border from Pakistan. One commander said that was due in part to the increase in U.S. troops in the region. The presence of the outsiders has helped the Taliban to recruit more fighters.

News broke yesterday that the Obama administration was no longer going to attempt to get Israel to renew a moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank. But administration officials are stressing that that does not mean the peace-process push is over. State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said yesterday that “the process has not stopped,” and that U.S. officials were speaking quite a bit with both Israeli and Palestinian officials. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to outline next steps during a speech on Friday.

Vice President Joe Biden will chair a UN Security Council meeting on December 15 and will attempt to get members to lift trade sanctions on Iraq. Three draft resolutions are on the table. One will remove sanctions put in place after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 (which were aimed at preventing Iraq from getting chemical, biological and other weapons but today harm various industries). And two of the resolutions have to do with oil revenue and the oil-for-food program.