Panetta's Withdrawal Plans

There may be some movement on the U.S.-forces-in-Iraq front. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is reportedly behind a plan to keep a much-reduced force of around three or four thousand in country to train the Iraqis after the end of the year. It’s not altogether clear that the government in Washington or in Baghdad will support the extension. It runs contrary to President Obama’s long-standing end-of-the-year withdrawal deadline, and despite repeated requests from the American government, Iraq hasn’t come down definitively one way or the other. But many argue that Iraqi forces aren’t yet ready to stand on their own.

U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is making waves again. This time on Facebook. He went after Bashar al-Assad’s government for the violence it’s been employing against Syrian protesters. Pulling no punches, he wrote: “Neither the Syrian protest movement nor the international community will believe that this Syrian leadership desires or is capable of the deep, genuine and credible reforms that the Syrian people demand.” He also said that “no one in the international community” thinks Damascus’s justifications for cracking down on protesters—that many Syrian security forces have also died—is credible.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chatted with PA president Mahmoud Abbas yesterday as the Palestinians gear up for the UN GA meeting next week, at which it’s widely expected they will make a push for statehood. According to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, Clinton called on Abbas to “work hard with us to avoid a negative scenario in New York at the end of the month.” Washington does not want to see the Palestinians ask the UN for recognition but rather wants to find a solution to the intractable problem through negotiation. According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, peace must be “negotiated directly by both parties.”

In that spirit, Washington is making another push for talks. Special envoy David Hale and White House adviser Dennis Ross both headed to the region, meeting with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak yesterday. Hale is scheduled to meet with Abbas today.

Washington is also concerned about ongoing Israel-Turkey tensions. Nuland explained that the administration hopes the parties “can de-escalate, we can defuse, and we can get them back to talking about improving their relationship.”

North Korea’s nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac is set to arrive in Washington today to sit down with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and U.S. envoy on North Korea Stephen Bosworth. Nuland said that the prospects of resuming nuclear disarmament talks are not promising. Washington has repeatedly said that Pyongang must halt its nuclear activities before sitting down at the negotiating table. Pyongyang meanwhile has said it will halt the activities only after talks begin.