By Josh Rogin
Thursday, April 29, 2010; A15
Study: Guidance needed to apply sanctions
U.S. officials in Damascus lack clear guidance on how to implement U.S. economic sanctions against the Syrian regime, an internal State Department study has found.
"The most immediate issue requiring greater clarity concerns economic sanctions," reads the department's inspector general's latest report on the U.S. Embassy in Syria. "There is no front-channel guidance on the issue. The inspection team reviewed email and informal traffic regarding sanctions and waiver policy, and found several areas in which the guidance appeared to be contradictory."
The major U.S. sanctions against Syria are laid out in the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, which limits U.S. exports there to food, water and a select list of items approved by the Commerce Department. While the embassy staff in Damascus, without an ambassador since 2005, are diligent in documenting the Syrian government's efforts to subvert the sanctions, the report found there was "inadequate guidance regarding how embassy officers should advise potential U.S. exporters of sanctions and possible waivers."
The investigators also found that the Syrian government's engagement remains poor, almost one year after the Obama administration announced its intention to restore an ambassador to Syria.
The embassy has noticed some increased access to Syrian officials, but they mostly avoid contact with U.S. diplomats. For example, the charge d'affaires, Charles F. "Chuck" Hunter, is not able to meet with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem.
"Most Embassy business, routine and otherwise, is conducted through diplomatic note or during visits by senior Washington officials and congressional delegations, when access is granted," the report states.
Nominee faces GOP grilling over love affair
President Obama's nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte to be the next U.S. ambassador to El Salvador still faces Republican opposition because of a relationship she had with a Cuban American more than 15 years ago.
Objections surfaced during Tuesday's business meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which approved the nomination of the Washington attorney despite "no" votes by several GOP committee members. Led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the Republicans are demanding more information about Aponte's long-ago romance with Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban-born insurance salesman who was alleged to have ties to both the FBI and Fidel Castro's intelligence apparatus.
Republicans want access to all FBI's records on the relationship. The FBI interviewed both Aponte and Tamayo about the matter back in 1993, but Aponte declined to take a lie-detector test. Citing "personal reasons," she withdrew from consideration to be ambassador to the Dominican Republic in 1998 after then-Sen. Jesse Helms promised to ask invasive questions about the relationship at her hearing.
"The allegations were apparently serious enough for her to withdraw her nomination in 1998, so I think it's fair to ask some questions," DeMint told The Cable.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), defended Aponte after seeing at least some of the FBI's material. "If I thought that after having reviewed the file that Miss Aponte would be a security risk to the United States in any context, but particularly in the context of the Castro regime having access to her, I would oppose her. But that is simply not the case," he said.
At her March 17 confirmation hearing, Aponte gave her most detailed account to date about the relationship and her interactions with Cuban officials in the 1980s. "It was a romantic relationship," she said, which included "social contacts" with other couples in the Cuba interests section.
Senator says Obama improving toward Israel
The Obama White House has improved its approach to both Israel and the American Jewish community in the last week, according to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has emerged as a tough critic of Obama's handling of the Israeli government.
Schumer made news last week when he said on the Nachum Segal Show that Obama's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was "counterproductive." He also said there was a battle going on about the policy inside the Obama administration and that if his side didn't win, "we'll have to take it to the next step."
Backing off those comments Tuesday, Schumer said that he sees changes in the White House's approach to dealing with pro-Israel groups in the United States and can envision the "possibility" of changes in the administration's policies toward Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
"People in the pro-Israel community are feeling a sense that they're being listened to and there might be some changes," Schumer said.