Something quite extraordinary -- perhaps even historic -- is afoot in Turkey. The country's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is engaged in a colossal roll of the political dice, an act of statesmanship, ambition, and hubris largely without parallel on the current world stage. At one and the same time, Erdogan appears set on a course that could result not only in redefining the very nature of the modern Turkish nation-state, but in a radical revision of the Turkish Republic's core national security tenets as well. How the gambit plays out could have momentous implications for the future of Turkey, for sure, but also for the broader Middle East region and even the United States.
At the center of Erdogan's play is an effort to resolve Turkey's "Kurdish problem" -- the chronic, often bloody conflict that has torn at the fabric of the Turkish state since its founding 90 years ago. On one side: the highly exclusive Kemalist conception of Turkish citizenship that all but denied the existence of Kurdish ethnicity (no Kurds here, only "mountain Turks") and effectively banned Kurdish language, history, and culture from the nation's public life. On the other: a fiercely proud and distinct people, the Kurds, whose decades-long struggle for recognition and self-determination has -- not surprisingly -- regularly found expression in demands for independent nationhood, an ever-present separatist dagger pointed at the heart of Turkey's territorial integrity and unity. Since 1984, this clash of competing nationalisms has manifested itself most virulently in the brutal war waged against the Turkish state by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Leninist organization that both the United States and the European Union have officially designated as a terrorist group.
Now, in a bold and risky effort to cut through this Gordian knot, Erdogan has launched a new peace process in which his main partner is none other than Abdullah Ocalan, the infamous PKK leader who has been imprisoned on the Turkish island of Imrali since 1999. Revered by many (though by no means all) Kurds, Ocalan is reviled by the majority of ethnic Turks, condemned as a murderous enemy of the republic, a master terrorist whose hands are covered in the blood of innocents.
After months of secret negotiations with Erdogan's intelligence chief, Ocalan issued a dramatic cease-fire declaration from his jail cell on March 21, the Kurdish new year. The statement was presented publicly in Diyarbakir, a Kurdish-majority city in southeastern Turkey, where it was read out by Kurdish parliamentarians to a massive crowd waving Kurdish flags and portraits of the PKK leader. According to Ocalan, "A new era is beginning; arms are silencing; politics are gaining momentum. It is time for our [PKK] armed entities to withdraw [from Turkey]." Ocalan condemned as "an inhuman invention" past efforts to form states "on a single ethnicity and nation." Today, he stated, "everybody is responsible for the creation of a free, democratic, and egalitarian country that suits well with the history of Kurdistan and Anatolia."
Will and Peter have raised important points about the Obama administration's policy failings with regard to Syria. The President's approach combines the worst of moral negligence ("If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?") with casually adopted "red lines" whose terms and intelligence they litigate when the bluffs are called. All this while Hezbollah is openly participating, Assad's forces begin to regain ground, Turkey and Israel are being drawn in to the fight, and countries in the region plead for American leadership.
Peter may be right that the President is committed to stay out of the fight -- that Rwanda is the right historical parallel. It's entirely likely they will subject any and every possible policy to evidentiary standards intelligence work in the real world cannot attain or delays that string along journalists with the “Administration considering...” storyline. But those of us who believe for reasons of both interests and values the United States should have a much more active involvement in preventing the Assad government from remaining in power ought to be turning policy keys in the administration's locks to see if we can devise interventions consistent with the commander in chief's limitations and incentivized by engaging their ideological proclivities.
An intervention focusing on the plight of refugees might provide that key, allowing a humanitarian motivation, supported by the United Nations and the Arab League, with narrow involvement by U.S. military forces operating as one small part of a broad coalition, and heavy emphasis on "smart power" diplomacy to bring Russia into participation and growing governance capacity among the Syrian opposition.
Syria's civil war has displaced 4,250,000 Syrians from their homes to other parts of the country, and another 1,400,000 have fled outside the country to reside in neighboring states. Jordan alone is giving shelter to 524,000. One of the refugee camps constitutes Jordan's fifth largest city; this in a country without the largesse to provide much assistance and whose political structure has never come to terms with the long-term residence of Palestinians who left Israel in 1948. Jordan is tottering under the weight of providing for refugees and fear they may become permanent. President Obama acknowledged the burden on Jordan during his recent visit, pledging additional U.S. aid.
Turkey is in an even more parlous situation, with refugees fanning tensions between Turkish Sunni and Kurds and threatening to derail the Erdogan government's important progress in reconciliation on the Kurdish issue. The Erdogan government has so far held sectarian unity, but just barely, and violence is escalating. Turkey's turn from "zero problems with neighbors" to a foreign policy much more closely aligned with ours has been a real boon to the Obama administration. Moreover, constraining Turkey from shaming NATO into a much more activist military role -- invoking the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty, for example -- is a significant component of the Obama administration being able to limit U.S. involvement.
An intervention that seeks to create refugee camps within Syrian territory would take the pressure off neighboring countries. The United Nations estimates that six million Syrians are in need of urgent assistance, a full third of the population. Establishing camps in Syria at which civilians can safely receive that assistance would be the objective of the intervention.
Focusing on refugees would be the path of least international resistance, something important to this administration, and could even conceivably produce an international "legal" basis. Whether the UN will actually support invoking the Responsibility to Protect is worth testing, but it needn't be the only means by which the UN could be brought in. The Obama administration could lead from behind by orchestrating an appeal to the Security Council led by Turkey, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia -- perhaps even Israel could be included to show the breadth of regional support, and Iraq lured by Sunni emboldenment and the status of inclusion to abandon Iranian objectives. The Arab League would need to be jostled into unity, given its division over "awakening," but that's an ideal role for John Kerry's State Department. Isolating Iran and exposing its involvement in Syria would provide a unifying element. The Gulf countries could be prompted to advise China of its long-term oil needs, as produced some effect in Iran negotiations.
Secretary Kerry could be tasked with bringing Russia into the fold. The Russians have a genuine fear of stoking Islamist violence in the Caucasus; Kerry should persuade them their current policy in Syria will foster precisely what they're seeking to avoid and encourage their participation in the UN mission as a way of resetting how they are perceived by protecting Muslims in Syria. Giving Russia responsibility for refugee assistance in the area of their Tartus base would perhaps tempt them to support a UN role.
The "realist" pretensions of the Obama administration could be engaged in crafting an exit strategy for Assad -- promising he will not be remanded to the International Criminal Court if he chooses a coddled retirement in the UAE or London.
A UN mission could provide aid directly in the camps, rather than through the government, as it is now doing, taking that lever from Assad -- or perhaps leaving it with Assad to incentivize his agreement to establish the camps -- but giving NGOs latitude to work directly in the camps in addition to UN efforts.
The primary responsibility for protecting refugee camps inside Syria would in theory rest with the Assad government and in practice migrate to the rebels. A UN mission would hold the Syrian government responsible for any government attacks because it is the sovereign. The rebels have demonstrated the ability to take and hold territory from the government, even with the government's military advantages. If refugee camps were set up in the border areas north and east of the country, where the refugees currently are, they would be in rebel-controlled areas. Facilitating refugee return and providing governance in the camps would provide a governance training ground for Syrian opposition leaders. Working with them will increase our understanding and help us help the opposition gain control over militia that will eventually need to be demobilized.
Whatever one thinks of the efficacy of our intelligence work in Syria -- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey testified that we know less now than we did a year ago about Syrian rebels -- that our intelligence and military communities are so concerned about the prospect of providing them the kinds of weapons that would neutralize Assad's advantages ought to give us pause. General Salim Idris, our preferred leader of the opposition, has acknowledged he has little influence over what the rebels do and no direct authority over the largest factions. So caution is in order where arming the rebels is concerned.
It is still the case that the Assad government's advantage in the fight is air superiority and heavy weaponry. That is changing as Hezbollah and Iran both train and participate with the Assad forces, but preventing the Assad government from using airpower, artillery and missiles would shift the balance significantly in favor of the rebels. If we will not entrust rebels with the weapons to undertake that work, it falls to us. This need not entail a Northern Watch-style no fly zone, or even a preemptive destruction of Syrian air forces: coalition military operations could be restricted to preventing the use of aircraft, and retaliating against the use of artillery or missiles by the government. For all the talk of Syrian air defenses being five times as good as Libya's, the Israeli air force seems to slice through them pretty easily. Missiles fired from outside Syrian airspace, either from seaborne platforms or NATO batteries already based in Turkey could take much of the responsibility. Countering Syrian missiles may be too demanding in real time, but retaliating against units that fire them would diminish the government's advantage with time.
Such an approach would not prevent all Syrian attacks. But it would protect more Syrians and it would diminish the Assad government's military advantage over time. And it just might be limited enough, and contain enough elements of the kind of policies the Obama administration favors, for the commander in chief to consider it.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Peter Feaver raises a very interesting issue in his recent post on choosing an optimal policy for Syria. He suggests that we should not dwell on policies that would require a vigorous wartime leader, since he doubts President Barack Obama's ability to play that role.
At one level, this seems an eminently pragmatic suggestion. Different leaders have different strengths. As a nation, Americans just made a leadership choice -- why not recognize the constraints that choice may pose and limit the policy discussion accordingly?
And yet ... this line of argument puts me in mind of the summer of 2008. Friends who worked for the Treasury Department or White House at that time have told me that they could see the signs of economic trouble on the horizon and knew they did not have tools adequate to the task. Recall that a major reason George W. Bush's administration did not bail out Lehman Brothers in September 2008 was that it did not think it had the authority to do so.
But there was advance warning of the economic crisis that exploded that fall. Bear Stearns had failed in the spring of that year, six months before Lehman broke. Bear and Lehman had been two institutions noted for their very high leverage ratios. When the first went, there were more than a few hints that the second might follow.
So, if Bush administration officials felt themselves ill-equipped, why did they not seek greater authority from Congress that summer?
The answer I've gotten is that it seemed futile to make the request. The Congress of that time was controlled by Democrats who were in no mood to expand Bush's authority. The president's public standing and political capital were at low ebb. So the administration took a pragmatic approach of the sort Feaver advocates and did not bother to ask for additional tools. They took their constraints as given.
That was likely a disastrous decision for the Republican Party. It may have cost the 2008 election and thus, in turn, the 2012 election. Had the Bush administration yelled that danger was approaching and had Congress subsequently refused a well-thought-out request to act, there might have been a very different narrative in the fall of 2008. Instead of "reckless Bush administration deregulation driving the economy into a ditch," it could have been "farsighted Bush administration stymied by petty Congress."
Perhaps that's fantasy. It would have required an objective media, for example. Proposed financial legislation may not have been enough to quell the tingling in the legs of the media we actually had. But it's hard to believe that it wouldn't have been better to push Congress to do the right thing, rather than sitting quietly and looking inept and culpable.
I wonder whether there's an analogy with Syria. If we all sit around and accept that we're at a constrained optimum and the constraints bind, we effectively excuse leadership failure. Doing that can have long-run repercussions, particularly when we next make choices about our leaders.
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These have been tough weeks for the Obama administration on foreign policy. On so many issues of consequence, the trajectories of real-world events have been running decidedly against the Obama policy line. If you had to pick a major foreign-policy issue where the United States is in better shape today than it was six months ago, which one would you pick? I am hard-pressed to think of one. When the brightest foreign-policy story is a trip to Latin America, you know the White House is struggling.
Some of my Shadow Government colleagues have responded to the spiraling chaos by urging President Barack Obama to face facts and change his policies, particularly with respect to Syria.
The same news headlines have elicited a different reaction from me, however. I am not entirely comfortable with my reaction, so I post it here in the hopes that someone will persuade me that I am wrong.
When I read stories like this one, which outlines how careless the president was in setting up the Syrian "red line" on chemical weapons use, or this one, which raises serious questions about whether the administration's handling of Benghazi amounted to a politicized coverup, or this one, which details the extent to which partisan political considerations have shaped national security decision-making in the White House, it undermines my confidence that this administration could intervene effectively in Syria.
In other words, recent events and revelations have made me less inclined to support a robust intervention in Syria, not more inclined. I have reached this tentative conclusion not because the hawks are wrong and the doves are right about the stakes. My colleagues who are pushing for a military intervention are probably right about the negative consequences that are heading our way because of Obama's Syria policy (see Inboden's version here, and Zakheim's version here).
And those who downplay the costs of nonintervention must rely on cherry-picked analogies and dubious wishful thinking to bolster their conclusions (see Fareed Zakaria's version here, which ignores how regional adversaries interpreted the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon, or Stephen Walt's version here, which ignores the extent to which U.S. interests are affected by adverse global developments).
Rather, I am sliding toward nonintervention because, as I argued before, any U.S. military intervention will be led by the commander in chief we have, not the commander in chief we might wish we had. Obama has many strengths, but among them is not martial resolve in the face of wartime adversity.
Yes, he authorized a military surge in Afghanistan, but he did not back it up with a civilian/diplomatic surge -- instead, he undercut it with the strategic blunder of the arbitrary withdrawal timeline dictated by the domestic political calendar. And as doubts about Afghanistan mount, he has done almost nothing to mobilize public support for his own surge. Yes, he reluctantly went along with the British-French initiative to intervene in Libya, but he has subsequently tried to wash America's hands of responsibility for the aftermath. And, so far as I can see, he has not done much to back up his boast that the terrorists who attacked the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi would be held accountable.
In other words, Obama is a buck-passer, as Walt has pointed out with approval. You may or may not want a buck-passer conducting your foreign policy -- it matters greatly whether you have significant interests at stake (Walt explicitly claims America does not) and whether someone else is there to receive the buck (Walt is silent on this question, but if he pursued it he might realize that a sustained strategy of buck-passing creates the conditions for the emergence of a hostile peer rival, which even Walt acknowledges would be an adverse development).
But you surely do not want to go to war with a buck-passer. Not as your ally, which helps explain why Obama's declared policy of building an international coalition on Syria has failed. And not as your commander -- recognition that Obama's heart is not in the wars he already is leading reinforces the military's natural reluctance to intervene in any new conflict.
There were more promising options that may have been less demanding of presidential resolve earlier in the crisis. A more forward-leaning intelligence and rebel-support operation earlier on might have produced better rebel groups to support now. Perhaps it is fair of the hawks to criticize the president for missed earlier opportunities.
But because he missed those opportunities, we are where we are, and from here the options look exceptionally bleak. A robust policy today would certainly require a leader as committed to winning wars as he is to ending them.
So I would like those who are recommending that the United States take a more robust interventionist stance on Syria to tell me how they think Obama would lead such an intervention when, as seems likely, it will demand more political-military resolve than a drone strike. Without a more satisfying answer to that question, I am left with the unfortunate conclusion that the only thing worse than the current policy of halfhearted nonintervention could be a policy of halfhearted intervention. Perhaps Obama's preferred policy of not intervening decisively is the least worst of a very bad menu of choices.
And we at Shadow Government should acknowledge the theoretical possibility that Obama has been right all along on Syria and the rest of us have been wrong. In this hypothetical universe, Obama would appear almost a profile in presidential resolve, albeit resolve to do nothing as opposed to doing something. In the face of mounting evidence that his Syria policy might not be working, Obama nevertheless doubled and tripled down on the policy. It would be like the resolve that produced the Iraq surge, but in reverse. I do not think this theoretical possibility is likely, but it is imaginable, and those of us critiquing the policy should have the humility to acknowledge it.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Wading through all of the Benghazi hearing revelations prompted me to review my own blog posts on the subject. If I caught them all, my progression runs something like this:
1. Initially, I was inclined to give Team Obama a passing grade for its tactical response, but to ding it for the larger strategic failure of understanding the roots of the problem in the Middle East. Also, I dinged Obama partisans for viewing the crisis narrowly through the lens of the electoral campaign and trying to shout down critics from Mitt Romney's camp rather than address the substance of their charges.
2. Next, I credited Team Obama with handling the ceremonial role well -- better than the Romney camp did -- but noted that new revelations pointed to problems with the Obama administration's preparation for and response to the crisis.
3. Next, I dinged the media for waiting so long before they started asking tough questions about Benghazi, but noted that once they started, Barack Obama's administration seemed unable to provide convincing answers. Nevertheless, I still defended the administration from Republicans who were pushing the "Obama lied, Ambassador died" meme. I said it was far more likely that rather than outright lying, what Team Obama was doing was mere partisan political spin control. It was all designed to distract public attention from an embarrassing fiasco, but to do so without willful deception.
4. Next, I pointed out that the Obama campaign in the televised foreign-policy debate tried to pretend that it had always been candid about the Benghazi terrorist attacks when, of course, it had not and had, in fact, followed exactly the spin script I had forecast.
5. Finally, I noted that the official State Department report tried to fix blame for Benghazi on Congress and despite presenting evidence for the myriad ways that Obama's regional strategy had itself contributed to disaster, studiously avoided reaching that obvious conclusion. The report read a bit like a whitewash designed to protect higher-ups.
Since then, the Benghazi revelations have suggested that I might have been too kind to the administration. There are four key questions, and on all of them, the evidence keeps piling up in a more negative direction:
1. Did failures of strategy and comprehension of the regional challenges contribute to the Benghazi disaster (in other words, was it just bad luck, or were there deeper failures involved)? From the beginning, this was a valid concern, and it is even more valid today. No new revelations have exonerated the administration on this crucial question.
2. Did failures of tactics and response contribute to the Benghazi disaster? Initially, it looked like those concerns were at best Monday morning quarterbacking and at worst partisan sniping, but the recent testimony shows that at least some responsible officials were begging for a better response in real time. The best that Obama defenders can say now is that even if these measures had been tried, they wouldn't have worked. Perhaps, but they were not even tried.
3. Was the initial public messaging up through Ambassador Susan Rice's infamous talking points tolerable spin and understandable fog-of-war confusion in the face of conflicting reports, or something much worse? Initially, I thought the administration earned the benefit of the doubt. Now, especially based on this bombshell story, the evidence points pretty convincingly to the conclusion that there was willful misleading going on in the earliest days.
4. Regardless of how it handled things under the pressure of a hard-fought reelection campaign, has the administration come clean since the election ended? Given how much of the recent testimony was missing in the State Department's official report, it is hard to credit the administration with candor even at this late date.
In fact, I am having a hard time coming up with a single element where the Obama case looks stronger today than it did before.
For months, my friends in the Romney campaign thought that Benghazi was a genuine scandal, and my friends on Team Obama have insisted that there is nothing to it (though one friend did concede that there was probably more to Benghazi than there ever was to the faux scandal over Valerie Plame). Throughout I have argued a middle-ground position of faint praise and faint damns. However, the evidence keeps mounting that the Romney folks may have been closer to the truth all along.
Here is one more piece of evidence: Obama defenders seem to have stopped trying to argue substance and instead are emphasizing how little the public cares about it and how quickly it will all be forgotten by the time that Hillary Clinton runs for president. They may be right about both of those points, but that is tantamount to pleading nolo contendere on the key charges. If the facts were with them, I think they would be mounting a more substantive defense.
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In Pakistan's 66-year history, a civilian government has never completed a full term of office and then handed power through elections to a successor administration. That will change on Saturday when Pakistanis go to the polls to elect a new parliament. Given Pakistan's position as ground zero for violent Islamic extremism, the world has a vital stake in who wins these elections and how they proceed to govern. What should we expect?
Several pre-election trends will have a decisive influence on its outcome. On the positive side of the ledger, this will be a competitive race. Forty-seven parties are contesting it. Forty-eight percent of registered voters are under age 35, and there are 36 million new voters, bringing to bear a sizable youth constituency that has a compelling interest in job creation and economic reform. There are 161 female candidates for office, compared with only 64 in Pakistan's last national elections in 2008. The Pakistani military, which has traditionally played a kingmaker role in politics when not governing itself, does not have a horse in this race, preferring to remain on the sidelines. These are all positive dynamics.
The top downside risk is the extraordinary levels of targeted violence that have preceded voting day, tilting the playing field and dousing it in blood. More than 100 political candidates and their supporters have been murdered by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) over the past 1.5 months. Insidiously, the TTP seems not to want to disrupt the election overall, but is pursuing a targeted campaign to suppress turnout for the parties most determined to combat violent extremism: the Awami National Party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, and the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
Pakistan's election is in fact taking place amid a low-grade civil war in which domestic terrorists are successfully targeting the political parties with the most liberal vision for the country's future. These parties are effectively unable to campaign, with the result that turnout of their supporters will be dramatically suppressed.
Equally disturbing is that several political parties expected to do best in Saturday's contest appear to have made a separate peace with the Pakistani Taliban that has largely precluded terrorist attacks on their members. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, led by Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, led by Imran Khan, have been able to campaign free from violent attack, giving them extra momentum in the lead-up to the polling. Sharif has offered to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban and withdraw the Pakistani armed forces from the fight against the militants in the country's northwest. Khan has offered dialogue with the terrorists and has pledged to order the military to shoot down American drones operating over extremist safe havens.
The PML-N and PTI lead the polls, with parties under siege from terrorism trailing in their wake. Should Sharif or Khan form a government separately or in coalition, Americans should expect a change in Pakistan's cooperation against violent extremists -- if either leader can wrest control of foreign policy and security policy from the armed forces, something the PPP-led government of the past five years could not manage.
In fact, the surge in popular support for the PML-N and the PTI comes not from their flirtations with radical Islamists or their anti-American posture. It stems from the promise of both parties to reverse the tide of corruption, cronyism, and economic lethargy that has characterized Pakistan under PPP rule. Polls show the vast majority of Pakistanis do not support the Talibanization of their country -- which is why the TTP is violently contesting the election rather than competing in it, and why Islamist political parties like the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and the Jamaat-e-Islami have done so poorly in previous elections and will surprise on the downside in these elections.
Most Pakistanis want better governance and economic opportunity -- not new safe havens for terrorists or war against the United States. But the more space the country's new leaders give to the violent radicals who seek to overthrow the Pakistani state, the less chance those leaders will have of generating the public goods their voters demand. A successful civilian transition is a historic first worth celebrating as better than the alternatives. But by playing footsie with the terrorists who are tearing their country apart, the likely victors of Saturday's election do a disservice to the vibrant civil society and patriotic armed forces that hold Pakistan together against increasingly long odds.
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
All presidents make serious mistakes. Presidential leadership comes not from avoiding mistakes, but from having the humility, wisdom, and courage to correct those mistakes. There are growing signs that President Obama and his senior team are now realizing that they have seriously mishandled the Arab Awakening, even if they are still unsure what to do now -- and even if their negligence has rendered their choices now much more difficult.
Two and a half years in, Obama still has not developed a coherent strategy for the region. The problems began further back, in 2009, when Obama's dogmatic commitment to outreach to the Iranian regime clouded his ability to see the significant shift taking place among the Iranian people as the Green Movement suddenly emerged. The White House's subsequent passivity towards the Green Movement protests deprived the United States of leverage at the most meaningful moment of Ayatollah Khamenei's political vulnerability in recent years. Obama's Egypt policy has consisted of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood and neglecting non-Islamist Egyptians like liberals and Coptic Christians -- all while President Morsy drives the Egyptian economy over the cliff, though he still finds time to support fatwas against Easter. Obama may have won the war in Libya but is scandalizing the peace, as the Benghazi consulate attack and the chaos in Mali reveal.
Obama's Syria policy has consisted of just wishing it would go away. The humanitarian costs of over 80,000 dead are a grim rebuke to the White House's Atrocities Prevention Board. Instead, Anne Marie Slaughter and Walter Russell Mead have now taken to calling Syria "Obama's Rwanda," as was suggested here a few months ago.
For those not moved by principle to take action on Syria, American interests alone make it compelling. The region is being further destabilized with Iraq and Lebanon facing internal turmoil, and American allies Turkey and Israel feeling increasingly threatened -- the latter so much so that it has undertaken its own bombing campaign in Syria. Iran continues to rely on Syria as one of its main sources of leverage and influence in the region, just as Hezbollah relies on patronage from both Iran and Syria. Potentially worst of all, Syria's chemical weapons stores -- among the world's largest and deadliest -- are in very real danger of falling into the hands of extremist groups. That is what happens when the Assad regime opens its weapons depots and begins mixing and using them, thus dispersing the stocks, loosening command and control, and giving the extremists even more incentive to try to seize them -- and giving potential Syrian military defectors a deadly bargaining chip. Assad seems to be pursuing a salami slicing strategy of gradually employing more and more gruesome tactics. In this way he is perversely acclimating the outside world to his barbarity, while testing American resolve. Yet instead of meaningful action, we get a quote like this from a senior Obama advisor to the New York Times: "If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?"
Yes, he really said that. Aside from the moral callousness of that statement, its myopia is stunning. The possible use of sarin also means that that the stocks have been loosened, dispersed, and much more likely to fall into other hands. One would think that the very real prospect of chemical weapons being acquired by Islamist extremists who hate America would convince those few remaining voices still insisting that the U.S. has no national interests in the Syrian civil war to reconsider their blind faith.
Meanwhile, Obama's hands-off approach for the past two years has deprived the United States of any opportunity to 1) build ties with the opposition and shape its composition, 2) prevent the preponderance of the opposition from getting radicalized, 3) tip the scales of the conflict in the opposition's favor, and 4) shape the post-conflict political order, whatever it might be and whenever it might begin to emerge. Walter Mead sums this up well:
Given those goals, White House Syria policy from the beginning should have been to do everything possible (short of major direct American military involvement) to ensure a quick rebel win. The quicker the win, the less time international jihadis would have had to hijack the Syrian revolution, the less funding would have gone to radical groups, and the better the chances that post-war Syria would have been relatively calm. That's all lost now and we have paid and will pay a high price for the hesitation and dithering since war began.
Meanwhile, the strategic mistakes mount, with the most recent being Obama's rhetorical "red line" on the use of chemical weapons turning out to be only that -- rhetorical. Credibility is one of a president's, and a nation's, most precious assets. The "red line" is only the latest in a series of credibility-squandering utterances, following on Obama's repeated demands that Assad "must go," backed up by nothing policy-wise. The mismatch between Obama's words and actions is creating a credibility gap of Carter-esque proportions. Dictators from Tehran to Pyongyang are taking note.
One of the more memorable moments in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary came when then-Senator Hillary Clinton challenged also then-Senator Barack Obama over his allegedly jejune foreign policy credentials with the "3 a.m. phone call" advertisement about an urgent global crisis. Her question was pointed: Would the callow Obama know how to respond in the crucible?
Looking back over the five years since, I wonder if Clinton was right in her main point, just wrong in her timing. In this case, perhaps the mistake is not that the phone rang just once at 3:00 a.m. and that President Obama botched the call. Is it possible that historians will one day decide that the phone was ringing incessantly for two years, and yet President Obama failed to answer it?
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Last year, in the run-up to what would be Hugo Chávez's final election, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter provided the ultimate cover for the late caudillo when he called the Venezuelan election process "the best in the world." Today, as the country roils in the aftermath of a contested election to elect Chávez's successor, we now know that is not the case.
Who says? Carter's own election-monitoring organization. Last week, an official at the Carter Center told the Washington Post, "The concerns are not about the [voting] machines and whether they counted accurately. The questions are much more about who voted. Was there double voting? Was there impersonation of voters? And was there coerced voting?"
All good questions, ones which anyone should expect to be assessed before making pronouncements about any electoral process as the "best in the world." This is no small matter, since the Carter Center, perhaps more than any other organization outside Venezuela, has repeatedly granted legitimacy to Hugo Chávez's successive reelections, even as the evidence mounted that elections in Venezuela were exceedingly one-sided affairs.
From stacking the electoral council with his loyalists, to his near-monopoly control of the broadcasting media, to his non-transparent spending of Venezuela's record oil profits for political purposes, to intimidating voters with the public exposure of their votes, Chávez used every tactic, above-board and underhanded, to smother opposition candidates.
But with the rabble-rouser-in-chief no longer among us, it appears chavismo, the movement Chávez created, has run its course. Something went seriously awry in April's snap election for Chávez's chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro. Whereas the late president won the October election by eleven percentage points, Maduro barely edged challenger Henrique Capriles, beating him by one percentage point.
What we learned from that election is that Maduro is no Chávez, and not even the obscene collusion between the government, the ruling party, and electoral officials could change that. (My colleague Roger Noriega has exposed the sophisticated chavista vote-getting machine here.) What they failed to account for was that Chávez's link with his base was not transferrable to the wooden Maduro.
What Chávez's successors also underestimated this time around is the adamant refusal of the opposition to accept another rigged election. They have demanded a recount, filed a protest with the Supreme Court, and asked for international solidarity with their cause. The Maduro government and its Cuban handlers have responded with the only thing they have left: violence.
Last week, opposition lawmakers were physically attacked on the floor of the National Assembly after they protested a move to silence them. Before that, Venezuelans were attacked in the street by government-armed thugs as they protested the election result.
Given the ongoing turmoil, the Obama administration has taken a principled stand in not recognizing the outcome until the opposition's grievances are dealt with in some satisfactory way. During his trip to the region this past weekend, President Obama addressed the controversy:
"I think that the entire hemisphere has been watching the violence, the protests, the crackdowns on the opposition. I think our general view has been that it's up to the people of Venezuela to choose their leaders in legitimate elections. Our approach to the entire hemisphere is not ideological. It's not rooted back in the Cold War. It's based on the notion of our basic principles of human rights and democracy and freedom of press and freedom of assembly. Are those being observed? There are reports that they have not been fully observed post-election. I think our only interest at this point is making sure that the people of Venezuela are able to determine their own destiny free from the kinds of practices that the entire hemisphere generally has moved away from."
Right on the money, Mr. President. Let's hope someone is listening in Georgia.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.