Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won just short of a majority in May 11's violence-plagued elections -- Pakistan's first successful democratic transition from one full term to another. But on May 19, he secured that majority when more than a sufficient number of independents joined his party. He needed 137 seats for a majority and he has 142. Soon to be prime minister for an unprecedented third time, he is now free to pursue his campaign agenda, governing a nation that chose to humiliate the incumbents (the Pakistan People's Party -- PPP -- of the late Benazir Bhutto) and return him to the highest office.
Pakistan is now led again by this most interesting politician. He has been on both sides of the democracy-dictatorship divide, getting his start in politics by joining Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq's military government in the 1980s in order to get back his family's steel business, which had been nationalized by Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in the 1970s. (Zia had overthrown the elder Bhutto in 1977.) When democracy returned after Zia's death in 1988, Sharif led his party to victory and was twice prime minister; always the blood feud continued between him and Benazir Bhutto (he even managed to co-opt Bhutto's younger brother into an alliance against her). The saying "live by the sword, die by the sword" applies to his life: When he tried to tame the military in his second term, he himself was overthrown by Gen. Pervez Musharraf in a 1999 coup and was almost executed but for the intervention of Bill Clinton's administration. He and the Clintons, especially the former secretary of state, maintain a close relationship. Always a conservative Muslim who has supported the Islamization of Pakistan, he has nevertheless been a staunch proponent of privatization and industrialization, his goal being to make Pakistan the "South Korea" of the subcontinent.
Throughout this history, of which I have provided only a cursory glance, Sharif has been a man the United States wanted to count on and work with. His economic outlook makes him relatively more attractive as a leader whose policies have the best chance of stabilizing Pakistan by solving the grinding poverty affecting most Pakistanis. The major alternative, the PPP, has never governed well in large part because its legacy is statism and corruption. And while Sharif's foreign policies have worried U.S. officials, such as his close relationships with the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as his sometimes reckless policies regarding his country's nuclear capabilities, he has nevertheless tried to improve relations with India because of his belief that, in addition to democracy, only through trade can Pakistan solve its economic problems.
Over the last several months, analysts offered varying views on Sharif's potential return to power, with many worried by his overtures to terrorists and the seemingly unsolvable problems Pakistan faces. After Sharif's victory, the ever insightful Walter Russell Mead offered a rather negative outlook. But I'm more hopeful.
During this last campaign, Sharif won over his critics who used to be frightened by his former talk of a "caliphate" and his past association with military government. He did this by showing himself to have learned patience (months in a military prison waiting to die can have that affect apparently) and by articulating an agenda that would transform Pakistan's economic and foreign policies. He advocates economic liberalization and promises a crackdown on corruption. He insists that a better relationship with India is paramount. And he has made clear that the military will submit to civilian control. It seems the military is listening as the country's top general called on him at his home after the election -- an unprecedented move. Importantly, he takes the helm again when Pakistan is more democratic, and this augurs well for his new administration to have the backing he needs. Turnout in this election was historic, with more young, female, and liberal voters supporting him in huge numbers. They have changed their view of him because apparently they believe he has changed; it helps that he resisted calls to ally with the military and oust the flailing PPP during its tenure. They certainly had other choices that represented change, but they opted for a man they have known for over a generation who said what they wanted to hear about governance and economic and foreign policies.
Of course the jury is still out, and this is Pakistan, after all; it is in a terrible neighborhood, and it's got a bad track record. And Sharif could have just succeeded in a massively cynical campaign to dupe voters and once in office will resume the project of Islamization and use a heavy hand against his opponents. But even if these were to be his goals -- and that doesn't seem likely -- this is not the Pakistan of 20, 10, or even five years ago. It is more democratic, and its youth, its women, and its voters in general are more demanding of government. In short, the country is progressing toward democratic maturity and apparently so is its new leader. Let us hope that Secretary of State John Kerry, who like Clinton has a good relationship with Sharif, can get a foreign-policy success with Pakistan.
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Pakistan has just held a historic election with the highest voter turnout in four decades. For the first time, a civilian administration completed its full term and handed power to new civilian leadership. The military stayed in its barracks and did not openly seek to tilt the electoral playing field, as in the past. Youth turnout was strong. From the ground, where I was part of a delegation from the National Democratic Institute observing the election, Pakistan did not look like a failed state. Rather, it appeared to be a country whose people desperately want good governance and economic opportunity, and believe their democratic choice may help deliver it.
Yet there is another Pakistan, one in which nearly 150 people - including political candidates and their supporters - were killed by the Pakistani Taliban over the past month. Leading politicians from national and regional parties were unable to campaign as militants placed "head money" not only on candidates but on their wives and children. A former prime minister's son, running for a parliamentary seat, was kidnapped in broad daylight at a political rally just days before the vote. And the chairman of the nation's ruling party had to campaign from abroad, so fearful was he of assassination by militants. Dozens were killed in election-day violence in Karachi, the country's commercial capital - despite the nationwide deployment of 300,000 extra security forces to ensure peaceful balloting.
Incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) faced down a late surge by Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), now confronts enormous expectations. During the previous five years of rule by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the country's energy infrastructure fell further behind the burgeoning demand, while economic growth lagged badly. Corruption among the country's governing elite reached new heights, despite Pakistan's enormous socioeconomic deficits. The Pakistani Taliban strengthened its position not only in the rugged borderlands along the Afghan frontier but in major urban centers. Sectarian violence between Sunni extremist groups and persecuted Shia and Christian minorities spiked. In short, Pakistan began to look ever more like a failing state, with leaders unable or unwilling to confront vexing national challenges.
Sharif has pledged to focus on expanding reliable energy supply and economic reforms to catalyze growth and job creation. Although Pakistani democracy received a fillip from Saturday's vote, the authoritarian temptation will return if this government cannot put the country on a sustainable economic trajectory. That will require a prime minister who not only can leverage his private-sector background to press for real reforms, but also roll back the corruption and misgovernance that have condemned Pakistan to lackluster economic growth.
Another hoped-for incentive for reform will be the long shadow cast by PTI leader Imran Khan, whose party fell short in the elections but captured the imagination of young, urban Pakistanis with its challenge to politics-as-usual. Khan has been playing a long game, sitting out the last elections in 2008 because he did not believe they would be free and fair, establishing intra-party democracy that highlights the dynastic qualities of the other parties, and speaking bluntly about the failure of the Pakistani state to reflect its people's aspirations. Given demographic and socioeconomic shifts in Pakistani society, his party threatens to displace the PPP and challenge the PML-N as Pakistan's leading political movement. To placate and co-opt Khan's fervent supporters, Sharif will need to deliver on his promises or risk fueling Khan's anti-establishment narrative.
Pakistan's new leaders will also need to manage relations with other internal constituencies, including an activist judiciary and a powerful military lurking just offstage. This year will see the retirement of the assertive chief justice of the Supreme Court, the departure of the president from office, and the retirement of the chief of army staff. The choice of their successors will do much to shape Sharif's ability to deliver on his governing agenda.
Finally, the external environment may become more favorable to Pakistani reform and growth. India hopes to resume the détente that started with the 1999 Lahore Declaration during Sharif's previous tenure as prime minister. The drawdown of Western forces in Afghanistan will create instabilities, but they also create the opportunity for Pakistan and the United States to enjoy a more normal relationship not premised on Pakistani cooperation (or lack thereof) in a third country. Pakistan's successful democratic transition, combined with its increasingly dangerous pathologies, suggest that it is high time the West dehyphenated Af-Pak and focused on how Islamabad can deliver on its people's aspirations to live in a thriving, peaceful nation -- not a Talibanized one.
A version of this article appeared as a German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Take (www.gmfus.org) .
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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.
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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.
EGILDA GOMEZ/AFP/Getty Images
[Update: Last night, Venezuelan electoral authorities agreed to a partial audit of Sunday's vote, although not the full recount demanded by challenger Henrique Capriles.]
After an ill-advised overture to Hugo Chávez's government last November, the Obama administration has regained its footing with a strong, principled stance on Venezuela's contested election. Based on the razor-thin margin and opposition protests of irregularities, the administration has yet to recognize as the winner Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chávez's anointed successor, and has instead supported a review of the vote count.
In appearances before both the House and Senate in recent days, Secretary of State John Kerry re-affirmed that position "so that the people of Venezuela who participated in such a closely divided and important election can have the confidence that they have the legitimacy that is necessary in the government going forward."
He said, "I don't know whether it's going to happen. ... [But] obviously, if there are huge irregularities, we are going to have serious questions about the viability of that government."
Kerry's statements brought the predictable howls of protest from Venezuela. "It's obscene, the U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of Venezuela," Mr. Maduro said. "Take your eyes off Venezuela, John Kerry! Get out of here! Enough interventionism!"
But no one should be intimidated by such false bravado.
Maduro is in a panic. He knows he cannot handle declining socio-economic conditions in the face of a reinvigorated opposition, dissension in his own ranks, and an engaged U.S. government standing firm on principle regarding the legitimacy of his election.
Of course, the administration will face a vociferous public campaign by chavista sympathizers pressuring it to accept Sunday's disputed result. Already, the feckless Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has backtracked from the organization's initial strong statement on behalf of a recount and now has accepted the result.
Recognition proponents will tell us the United States faces "isolation" in the region if the administration doesn't recognize Maduro (only Panama and Paraguay have joined the call for a recount) and that its supposed intransigence plays right into Maduro's hands, allowing him to whip up nationalist sentiment.
Nonsense. Those proposing such arguments fail to recognize that governments are pursuing interests. Certain countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and even Russia and China, have benefited greatly from economic ties with Venezuela under Chávez and their short-sighted view is to try and keep that spigot open.
Most citizens throughout the region, however, tend to be more appreciative of principles, such as the security and integrity of one's vote. One can be sure that, in case of a disputed election in their own country, they would hope to count on external support for an honest accounting in their own electoral processes.
Secondly, as the election just demonstrated, Maduro is not Chávez, and his capacity to whip up anything but official violence against Venezuelans protesting in the streets is extremely doubtful (Warning: graphic photos here). In short, no one should be misled by the noisemakers.
A continued firm stand on behalf of a clean election will resonate positively throughout the region, sending a strong signal to all democrats that the United States does indeed care and that intimidation and violence have no place in any democracy. It is not likely that such sentiments will sway Maduro and his Cuban advisors to accept any sort of recount, but it will certainly place the United States on the right side of the debates and confrontations to come.
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This Saturday, Iraqis head to the polls to vote for provincial councils -- the country's first elections since U.S. troops withdrew sixteen months ago. The balloting comes at a time of growing peril for Iraq. Violence is escalating, as are tensions pitting the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against the country's Sunni and Kurdish communities -- all exacerbated by the raging civil war in neighboring Syria. While posing a stern test to the viability of Iraq's democratic system, the elections will also serve as an important indicator of the relative strength of Iraq's competing coalitions -- especially Maliki's -- in advance of national elections scheduled for 2014.
At stake are nearly 450 seats on local governing bodies. More than 8100 candidates from some 265 political entities are competing. The elections cover 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. The three provinces comprising the Kurdistan Regional Government will vote later this year, while elections in oil-rich and ethnically disputed Kirkuk have (by tacit agreement among the competing communities) not been held since 2005.
But in a highly controversial move, Maliki's cabinet decreed in March that balloting would be delayed by up to six months in Iraq's two most influential Sunni-majority provinces, Anbar and Nineveh -- both of which border Syria and have for months been the locus of large-scale (but mostly peaceful) anti-Maliki protests. Maliki claimed -- not entirely without justification, especially in Anbar -- that he was simply responding to the petition of local leaders worried that voters could not be adequately protected from growing collaboration between al Qaeda affiliates on either sides of the Iraq-Syria border.
His opponents charge that the prime minister's real agenda is avoiding a massive anti-Maliki turnout that would further escalate opposition to his government. They correctly note that previous elections were conducted under far more threatening conditions. Both the U.S. and U.N. urged Maliki to reverse course, worried about the appearance of disenfranchising millions of Sunnis already agitated by claims that Maliki has been systematically moving to marginalize their community in the interests of establishing an Iranian-backed Shiite dictatorship. Maliki turned aside these criticisms, while suggesting the delayed elections might occur as early as May.
The reality is that violence threatens voting throughout Iraq. A series of more than 20 terror attacks on Monday hit targets across the country, including prospective polling places, killing Sunnis and Shiites alike. These were but the latest in a string of al Qaeda-linked assaults that have occurred at increasingly regular intervals. The campaign has also been marred by at least 15 candidate assassinations, all of them Sunnis and many believed to have been killed not by Al Qaeda but by political rivals within their own community.
Whether Iraqi security forces can successfully protect the elections without the support previously provided by tens of thousands of U.S. troops is a major question mark. The fact that close to 700,000 army and police officers went to the polls in early voting last Saturday without incident was encouraging. Also of concern, however, is the possibility that the mere threat of violence could significantly depress turnout, stoking doubts about the legitimacy and future of Iraq's shaky democracy. An especially important indicator could be the participation of Sunnis -- a potential barometer of that disgruntled community's continued commitment to the post-2003 political order or, alternatively, a troubling sign that, perhaps inspired by co-religionists in neighboring Syria, they are looking to more confrontational methods to redress their grievances.
Beyond violence, ensuring the integrity of the electoral process has to be a real worry. There is no doubt that America's heavy involvement during past elections helped deter fraud to a minimum. Absence that involvement, the risk of widespread wrongdoing -- or simply the perception of wrongdoing -- increases dramatically, even with the presence of a few hundred international observers and several thousand domestic monitors. The danger that significant swaths of the public may simply reject the legitimacy of the results cannot be discounted.
Assuming a relatively free and fair vote, the outcome of Saturday's elections is hard to predict. No reliable polling is publicly available. Maliki has confidently claimed that his coalition will win big. In recent weeks, he has shrewdly sought to divide his Sunni opposition (including through a surprising set of proposals to ease de-Baathifcation laws), successfully co-opting stalwart nationalists like Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq. The Iraqiya bloc of his main rival, former prime minister Ayad Allawi (a secular Shiite), has splintered, with the current speaker of parliament, Osama Nujaifi, and the former finance minister, Rafi Issawi, forming their own Sunni-based coalition.
Nevertheless, surprises remain possible. In local elections, a voter's familiarity with a hometown candidate can often trump allegiance to a national party. In provincial balloting four years ago, Iraqis voted to punish incumbents -- an inclination that if repeated on Saturday could well work against Maliki and to the benefit of his major Shiite rivals in the Islamic Supreme Council and Sadrist camp -- both of which are fielding their own candidates. For all his troubles, Allawi's bloc is the only one competing in all Iraq's provinces, both Sunni and Shiite, a nationalist vocation that could well accrue to his benefit. And even if Maliki's State of Law emerges as the top vote getter, post-election coalitions among his opponents could emerge that deny him the degree of local domination that he seeks.
Should Maliki nevertheless secure an overwhelming victory, it will likely fuel fears that his most worrisome authoritarian tendencies will be emboldened: more consolidation of control over key state institutions, particularly the means of coercion and the courts; more targeting and exclusion of political opponents; an intensified effort to resolve disputes with Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni minorities through confrontation; and increased dependence on Iran. Maliki's chances of winning next year's national elections, another four years in office, and increasingly unconstrained powers would increase significantly. Should such fears be realized, the results for Iraqi stability and unity could be dire indeed -- especially in a regional context of dramatically heightened sectarian and ethnic tensions, perhaps leading to all-out state collapse in next-door Syria.
From that standpoint, Iraq's future may be best served if Saturday's elections see not only minimal violence, maximum participation, and limited irregularities, but also no clear winners and losers -- a triumph not only of the democratic process, but a therapeutic re-balancing of Iraq's political landscape that reminds all parties of the continued imperative of negotiation, compromise, and political partnership.
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True to form, the Venezuelan government and its Cuban minders have spared no effort or expense to ensure the outcome of Sunday's snap election to elect the late Hugo Chávez's chosen successor. Challenger Henrique Capriles has been game (and his singular effort to revive the fortunes of the Venezuelan opposition commendable), but in the end his lot has been to be cast as a mere prop in Venezuela's version of "casino democracy," where the house always wins.
Ironically, Capriles should privately be relieved that Chávez's appointed successor, the dour and robotic Nicolas Maduro, and not he, will inherit the ticking economic time bomb that Chávez has bequeathed his country. Most sober observers of the Venezuelan scene give the country's economy 12 months at most before the wheels start coming off. As I have written before, some may remember Chávez for his embrace of the country's marginalized, but all Venezuelans are now poised to reap the whirlwind of the balance of his legacy: soaring inflation, a bloated public sector, a crippled private one, electricity blackouts, shortages of basic goods, and one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
Far from demonstrating any appreciation for the gravity of the economic situation, Maduro has indicated he only intends to dole out more of the same. In fact, even as the campaign has been taking place, the government has been pushing a new law in the rubber-stamp National Assembly that further undercuts the private sector and concentrates even more economic power in the state.
The so-called Law against Monopolies and Other Similar Practices is a capricious measure that empowers the government to confiscate any business that it deems not acting in the public interest. Yet the law would discard traditional metrics for the determination of monopolistic practices and instead leave it up to a politically appointed board to decide if a company has a "decisive domain" over the setting of prices or other market conditions. (State-owned enterprises would be exempt under the law, further tilting the playing field against the private sector.)
In other words, any successful company runs the risk of confiscation at any time by crossing the government's arbitrary line of being "too successful." And with the judicial sector also controlled by the government, private companies are left with no outlet to appeal adverse decisions.
The fall-out if such a law was to be implemented is not difficult to imagine: a further retraction of private sector activity, less production, and less opportunity for working Venezuelans. Just what the Venezuelan economy does not need at this critical juncture.
This is a far cry from the image of Nicolas Maduro that U.S. audiences were presented by the news media after he was named by Chávez as his successor. We were told the former bus driver was "pragmatic" and "likable." (Call it the Yuri Andropov Syndrome, after the soft-pedaling to the American public of the former KGB-head's supposed fondness for "Western jazz and scotch.")
Well, during this recent campaign, when the likable, moderate Maduro was not expelling additional U.S. personnel from the U.S. embassy in Caracas, accusing the United States of poisoning Hugo Chávez, or implicating former U.S. officials in attempts to assassinate either him or Capriles (depending on the day), he was making homophobic slurs about his opponent and characterizing the opposition as fascist coup-mongerers. And, at the same, planning further actions to destroy what is left of the private sector in Venezuela.
There will be those who will dismiss all this as just so much campaign bluster. They do so at risk to U.S. national interests. There is no evidence that Maduro is anything other than a deadly serious ideologue beholden to Cuba and to further pushing Hugo Chávez's destructive agenda. Consider him Chávez without the charm -- and come hell or high water he is about to be with us for another six years beginning this Sunday.
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President Obama's second inaugural address contained an admirable homage to some of the greatest heroes of civil and political rights. We are treated to a vision of the United States that is rooted in the ideals those heroes struggled to achieve. And we celebrate their victory, even if we are not all in agreement about how much progress has been made or how much remains to be done. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, America achieved what has made it truly "the last best hope of the Earth" as Lincoln put it and Reagan reiterated. The stains of second-class citizenship and institutionalized prejudice have been removed. There is always more to do to help people take greater advantage of their birthright of freedom, but the birthright is enshrined in law in a country where law rules, not men -- in theory and most of the time in practice.
But such is not the case in many countries of the world, a world where the United States must exist and because of its size and influence, lead. Fecklessness and timidity disguised as false humility won't do; we are expected to lead whether we are asked to or want to. So given this, we as citizens have a right and even a duty, I think, to ask if during the next four years the administration will base U.S. foreign policy on those same ideals. After all, if the character and reputation we have and want to keep is one of a beacon of democracy and a friend to it everywhere, then surely we are obligated to put actions to our words. The president made clear yesterday that as far as his domestic agenda is concerned, he will continue to insist on his understanding of what it means to be a country founded upon the ideals of freedom and equality, and that will mean a larger government and more spending on entitlements with the costs born by overburdened taxpayers and by debt. I don't agree with that approach, but that's not germane to this post. But what of his foreign policy agenda? Shouldn't he also in these matters take care to promote the ideals that he believes make us a great nation? Shouldn't we, can't we, do more than we have done in the last four years to stand by democrats in their struggles, wherever they may be found?
I have been saddened and even alarmed to look over the last four years of the Obama administration's policies and see that support for democracy in word and deed has often been pushed aside to make room for withdrawal and accommodation. For example, one of the greatest threats to liberty and equality the world over are the radical Islamic terrorists and their supporters and funders, but the president and his highest officials, while taking victory laps over bin Laden's takedown by Seal Team 6, campaigned as though this was a diminishing problem and that al Qaeda had been "decimated." The truth is that even as the campaign was winding down Benghazi exposed their assertions as flawed. We know that al Qaeda is not only still powerful but thriving in North Africa and beyond. We stand by as the French take the lead in saving Mali, literally, from an al Qaeda takeover. That's right, the French. But then France has never been slow to assert itself where national interests are at stake. We could take a lesson from them.
And there are other examples where the administration has not taken care to secure our interests, such as its refusal to treat Russia as a bad actor where democracy is concerned and a supporter of those who share its authoritarian bent. Or Venezuela, where a dictator has been allowed to ruin his country, try to ruin others in the region and coddle and comfort our worst enemies with little resistance from us.
Let me tie two concepts together that I have been discussing and make this assertion: support for democracy is in our national interest. I'm glad the president said so yesterday in his second inaugural address. I just wish he'd say it more often and do something more concrete about it in the next four years.
A nation like ours cannot do other than promote democracy and support democrats. It is in our DNA and it is the only way our foreign policy can make sense. Our failure to do so from time to time is the exception that proves the rule. Why else is it noteworthy when we fail to do so? It is one of the reasons we are an exceptional nation.
Support for democracy and democrats means giving voice to our ideals and to take action to support those who share our ideals. We should never fail to talk about liberty and rights with all states who deny them to their citizens. Freedom House's latest report is a useful guide for knowing how to address these issues and with which countries. And we should take action, such as providing resources of various kinds to those men and women who ask for our help. Some of them are so oppressed that they need succor just to go on living; some need support because they are in a position to actually change their country for the better. Think of it as supporting both "hope and change."
Notice I said nothing about imposing democracy or nation-building; these are canards used by those who opposed the Iraq war or who deny our leadership role by hiding behind "state sovereignty" claims. In my years as a government official we never once imposed democracy on any country; it can't be done. What we did, what the United Nations and Europe and the Japanese and the Indians and many others have done, is to provide aid to people in dictatorships or failing states who asked for our help. Sometimes they are the majority of a country; sometimes they are the minority. Pointing out the objections of a dictator who murders and abuses his people and who is very often a disturber of the peace of his region or the world provides no excuse to deny help to his victims when we can. What legitimacy does such a dictator have to object to his would-be slaves asking free peoples to help them be free? By what right does he block the free world from trying to encourage the establishment of more free states, which is in their interest?
A world made up mostly of states where rights are respected and the law rules is surely in our interests as these states are less likely to be in serious conflict with states like them. It might take years or generations, but we should try, nonetheless.
And there are two more reasons to try. First, dictators vexed by dissidents at home are weakened. It is in our interests to make tyrants as miserable as we can; we have plenty of resources and agencies who can do this work. History has many lessons on this. It is a shame so many oppressors and enemies of freedom feel more secure today to work their wicked will at home and abroad than four years ago, especially all those whose behavior we can influence. Second, it makes no sense to hope for the day when a tyrant falls but to have done nothing to help the lovers of freedom be ready to take over. We learned a hard lesson in Egypt: Mubarak spent 30 years squelching the democratic opposition and thereby fulfilling his own prophecy that "it's me or the Brotherhood." We could have done more in Egypt.
I would like to take the president at his word yesterday when he made his single comment about supporting freedom around the world. I did not expect his second inaugural address to be like President George W. Bush's, but I'm glad at least that he mentioned it. And I will hope that he does more. There are many fine people both in the ranks of the political appointees and in the foreign and civil services who want to help democrats around the world, even if there are many who do not. He's the boss, he can have his way if he'll lead. He has an army ready to implement good programs that directly support -- dare I say it -- a freedom agenda.
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2012 will end with Japan and Korea both choosing new governments as the leadership on Asia policy changes at the State Department. All three transitions could have an impact on the president's vaunted pivot to Asia.
In Japan the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just walloped the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) at the polls. On the one hand, this is nothing new. The last three Japanese elections (2005, 2009 and 2012) ended with lopsided victories as the frustrated Japanese electorate searched for leadership to get them out of their current doldrums. With the election of Shinzo Abe, however, the Western media and the left have hit general quarters. Time Magazine predicts dangerous new friction in Northeast Asia; the folks at Foreign Policy have featured analysis warning Japan could go nuclear; and within some quarters of the administration there is nervous chatter about whether Tokyo might provoke China too much.
Abe is a nationalist, to be sure, and he has said less than helpful things this election cycle about elevating attention to Japan's territorial dispute with Korea and revisiting a 1993 apology for treatment of the euphemistically-called "comfort women" who were sent to the rear areas of Japanese combat units during the war. On the whole, however, Abe is a good nationalist -- which is to say that he wants to project a Japan that is far more resolute than the flip-flopping of the past three years under the DPJ. At a time when Beijing thinks it is winning in its campaign to coerce maritime states on territorial issues, Abe has promised to increase spending on the Japanese navy and coast guard, to relax constraints on defense cooperation with the United States, and to strengthen security ties with the Philippines, Australia, India and others in Beijing's crosshairs. The United States should embrace this agenda. The problem is that any continuation of the nationalist rhetoric of the election campaign would drive a wedge between Japan and Korea, putting the United States and Japan in a weaker position to deal with a dangerous North Korea and an overbearing China. The administration should quietly explain the problem to the incoming team in Tokyo in exactly those strategic and national interest terms. In his last go as Prime Minister, Abe moved from nationalist to pragmatic statesman, improving ties with both China and Korea. As it became clear that LDP would win a landslide this time, he also began tempering his comments and stressing that he would rebuild the U.S.-Japan alliance and place importance on relations with China and Korea. His top advisors say privately not to worry. National security is all about worrying, though, so the administration will need the skill to construct a trusted private dialogue on the sensitive issues with Tokyo, backed by robust public support for Japan's security.
Korea goes to the polls on Wednesday. Right now the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, has a lead in most polls, but just inside the margin of error. Her opponent, Moon Jae-in, appears to have slight momentum on his side (Korean law limits polling in the final days of the election). Both are trying to appeal to the center without abandoning their bases. Park is the former daughter of strongman Park Chung Hee, while Moon was chief-of-staff and heir apparent to the former president, Roh Moo-hyun. Park's supporters are generally tougher on North Korea, more pro-U.S., and older. Moon's supporters are generally softer on North Korea and younger, but not gripped by the same anti-Americanism that helped Roh get elected in 2002. The younger voters' conversion is typified by Psy, the Gangnam-style rap artist who recently apologized for his crude anti-American songs from a decade ago. Moon himself is a pragmatist who appears to have learned the political and security consequences of the Roh administration's initial anti-Americanism. The problem is that Moon has surrounded himself with hardcore leftists who still believe that the right approach to North Korea is to buy their confidence with economic aid, even after (or they would argue especially after) Pyongyang has tested long-range missiles and possibly begun preparations for a third nuclear test. Needless to say, that policy would create considerable dissonance with Washington. Even Park, whose pro-alliance credentials are solid, has hinted that she will not be quite as tough with either Pyongyang or Beijing as the incumbent, Lee Myung-bak, has been.
Just as Japan and Korea enter these transitions, the Obama administration is losing its best stewards of Asia policy -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her assistant secretary for East Asia (and, truth in advertising, good friend to a number of us at Shadowgov), Kurt Campbell. There are other solid Asia hands in the administration, to be sure, but State has been particularly instrumental in managing U.S. alliances in the region. It is not hard to imagine an incoming team at State deciding that the highest priority in the second term must be modifying the harder edges of the pivot and quietly reassuring Beijing that the U.S. does not fully support Japan's new trajectory -- or worse, publicly walking away from a declaratory policy on the contested Senkaku Islands that suggests the U.S. is completely neutral (for three administration's the policy has been neutrality on the territorial claims, but clear signals that the United States would not be neutral if there were any military coercion by China). There are hints that some in the administration have already been shifting their public statements in this direction. Similarly, Korea-U.S. relations have prospered in the last four years, not because the Obama administration came in with any particular strategy for strengthening relations with Seoul, but because the President was personally captivated by President Lee Myung-bak's commitment to globalizing Korea's role and restoring trust in alliance relations with Washington. It is one thing to react to a dynamic ally, but quite another to put in the hard work of strengthening alliance ties when there are disagreements over North Korea policy or uncertainties in Seoul about how to deal with China in future.
The good news is that any new team will have to face confirmation hearings. In private calls and hearings, the Senate should be sure to take some time off from Iran, Syria and Afghanistan to verify the nominees' fundamental thinking about our alliances in Asia. These alliances do not run on auto-pilot, nor are they always easy. But as Lord Carrington once said about us as allies in the face of European criticism in the 1980s, "Yes ... yes ... all your complaints are true, but they are the only Americans we have."
Tadayuki YOSHIKAWA/AFP/Getty Images
Jimmy Carter's capacity to astound continues to know no bounds. Last Friday, presiding over an event at his eponymous organization, the former president allowed how Hugo Chávez's election process in Venezuela is "the best in the world."
Well, apparently he isn't reading much on the run up to Venezuela's October 7 presidential election, because such an affirmation flies in the face of nearly every report in recent weeks, which have overwhelmingly concluded it has been a fundamentally unfair process. (A few examples are here, here, and here.)
To be charitable, Carter may have been referring to the technical procedures on election day to guard against fraud, but, still, that is more a testament to the skill of the Chávez-dominated Venezuelan electoral council in convincing credulous foreign visitors on the supposed integrity of their system. In any case, focusing on voting machines on election day is missing the forest for the trees.
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 their votes, Chávez has used every tactic, above-board and underhanded, to smother the candidacy of former governor Henrique Capriles. It is a measure of Capriles' tenacity that not only is he still standing, but that he is giving Chávez all he can handle.
Yet, while Capriles's surging candidacy certainly bodes well for the preservation of some semblance of democracy in Venezuela (not to mention the prospects of a Chávez-less Venezuela), it is also heightening concerns that should Chávez come to believe he is losing on election day, he will unleash a wave of violence targeting the opposition.
In a recent 2,400-word exposé, Reuters reported on what are known in Venezuela as "colectivos," radical (and armed) neighborhood groups committed to outwardly defending Chávez's political project. They are unaccountable to any authority, acting above the law and with impunity. According to Reuters,
"In the eyes of critics, the groups are bandana-clad killers and vigilantes, the shock troops of the president's self-styled revolution. They have become more high-profile in the last four years, and some have been blamed for attacks on people they are said to perceive as enemies of Chavez.
"With a presidential election looming on October 7, opposition members fear the colectivos will turn to violence if challenger Henrique Capriles defies the polls and wins."
Moreover, in a second recent report, the Spanish newspaper ABC ran a front-page story -- ironically, published the day after Jimmy Carter's sanguine comments -- based on internal government documents revealing plans for even more select units of civilian "rapid mobilization networks" to be deployed on election day. According to ABC, these specially trained units -- expressly civilian to give the government plausible deniability in the event of lethal action - are tasked with "aborting opposition rallies before these can take shape, 'detection of opposition leaders, organization of street protests and resistance, and territorial control."
Civil society leaders have been sufficiently alarmed by these reports to write a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon apprising him of growing tensions in the country due to Chávez's inflammatory rhetoric promising "civil war" if he does not win. It also requested that member states express their concerns to the Chávez government and be vigilant that their election comports with international standards. Now, it is unlikely that any will express their concerns to Hugo Chávez, but the Obama administration does not have to remain silent. Yes, it has avoided microphone diplomacy with the Venezuelan caudillo, just as the Bush administration did. But there is an important difference: The Bush administration did indeed speak out when it concerned matters of high principle. This is such an occasion. Jimmy Carter may have gotten it wrong, as he is wont to do, but there is no reason President Obama has to get it wrong as well.
ANDREW ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images
That David Brooks is practically a surrogate for the Obama presidential campaign probably shouldn't be surprising, given that the supposedly conservative columnist for the New York Times endorsed Obama in the 2008 election. Leaving aside his infelicitous use of terms like "multi-problemarity," Brooks' current endorsement of the administration's foreign policy -- as an ingenious fox compared to the blundering hedgehog of its predecessor -- averts its eyes from the continuity of policies. One might argue the same policies have been carried out with better management and cost-effectiveness than during the Bush administration, except that the Obama administration has proved itself no more adept -- think the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan. Nor are they any more inclined than was the Bush administration to alter ideological positions on the role of the United Nations or the virtue of nuclear reductions or the need to "protect" American jobs or the centrality of Russia or the need to end the war in Iraq, even when evidence is plentiful their choices have negative consequences.
Brooks makes a general virtue of the president's failures because they illustrate his resilience in adopting new policies. But a policy isn't necessarily wrong because it is failing. It could be failing because the administration isn't providing the necessary resources, hasn't brought its different policy tools into supportive alignment, is being tested by adversaries to determine our commitment to see it through, is arrogantly assuming regional actors don't understand their own interests and demanding they adopt our approach, takes near-term actions that undercut their long-term goals, or alienates actors that have the potential to ruin our approach. (All of these apply to Obama administration Afghanistan policy, incidentally.)
Brooks' encomia is of a piece with praise of the Obama national security team in James Mann's "The Obamians," and Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O'Hanlon's "Bending History." A common theme in all these accounts is applauding the Obama team's "new realists" for their pragmatism. A less flattering way to say this is that the Obama administration adopted the very policies they campaigned against, and jettisoned policies they support when the achieving of them proved difficult. As one comedian put it, President Obama would really be in trouble if he were running for president against the guy who got elected in 2008.
President Obama has made a lot of political hay over not being President Bush, but has succeeded only in a Nixon-to-China kind of way: He can get away with policies that liberals opposed when practiced by conservatives. Where the president has bungled, it has been by indulging new directions so admired by chroniclers of the administration. Here's the tally of their signature initiatives:
A seminal question for the 2012 campaign will be whether President Obama can sustain the support of liberals while championing conservative national security policies. The Obama campaign certainly believes national security is a winning issue, but early evidence should not be reassuring to the president's supporters. The campaign's swaggering bravado and politicization of national security issues seems to alienate independent voters, and it may even serve to dampen turnout among liberals less enraptured with the president's new enthusiasm for targeted killings and disrespect for the sovereignty of other countries.
It also leaves an awful lot of room for Romney to lay claim to foreign policy themes with wide public resonance, such as the ideas that the most important and enduring international relationships are built on common values; that you build coalitions with countries that share your interests rather than allowing countries that don't to determine your choices; that where governments are repressive they lose the legitimacy to govern; that trade agreements advance our own economy and force adversaries to play by the rules; that new democracies deserve our help in building the institutions and practices of governance; that sound management of our foreign affairs requires the ability to bring political, economic, and military means together cost-effectively; that American military power is essential to maintaining a global order that is in our interests.
This will not be a campaign about foreign policy, given the president's mismanagement of the economy. But conservatives should not allow the president's advocates to pretend their "new pragmatism" means there are no differences between liberals and conservatives on foreign policy, or shy away from advocating the principles that appeal to American voters.
Well, President Obama has been speaking non-stop about outsourcing. In his campaign video that I'm being subjected to endlessly in Northern Virginia, he's even trotted out a new word: "insourcing."
I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he's just toeing the line drawn by his union supporters. Otherwise, there is something clearly awry with his Council of Economic Advisors.
But stop the presses: Obama is guilty of outsourcing, too. And while president. He's outsourcing security at our embassy in Iraq (and probably others but I've only wasted time checking one).
President Obama is outsourcing our national security. Literally. Take a gander at this part of the website provided by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Almost all firms are foreign and those that aren't employ lots of third-country nationals. He is advertising for outsourcing firms with your tax dollars...which means Barack Obama is promoting outsourcing with your tax dollars.
Rather than delve into this too deeply let me just say two things: These firms are all very good at what they do. Very good. Second, this is who should be doing this work. This is not a job for the U.S. military. They are not security guards. Rather, outsourcing these jobs is the right thing to do, and who cares what their mailing address is or where their employees come from? Obviously, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton agree with me because they have kept this Bush-era policy for more than three years. Three years of government outsourcing and President Obama still carries on -- and I applaud him for it.
Yes, it's a blatant attempt at avoiding discussion of the Obama economy. But this outsourcing rhetoric has the benefit of putting Obama's economic literacy on display -- and it's worrying. There is a very serious conversation to be had about what the president's economic policies have translated into for American leverage around the globe and we will get to that in future posts. (In the meantime, if you want more finesse and grey matter on the subject you can read about it here.)
The frightening thing about this outsourcing discussion is that the president appears to believe his rhetoric. I assume it's just politics but it's dishonest politics, even so. The reason for outsourcing is to achieve greater economic efficiency. Of course, the national security realm is hardly the area that you want to see that pushed as a first order priority. But don't forget, there are Americans who can do this security work, and who are better trained than anyone else. They are just more expensive.
So, why isn't Obama doing anything about this dangerous outsourcing of thousands of jobs with taxpayer money on his watch? There can only be three answers here.
The first is that he's just not paying attention. Fair enough. Why would the president of the United States focus on security guard contracts? But this is the biggest embassy on the planet and withdrawal from Iraq and downsizing the embassy there is the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He paid enough attention to remove his nominee for ambassador to that post. He also talked about the embassy security guards in his campaign. (Remember Blackwater? He and the his party carped on the subject for so long the company actually had to leave the country, which is another "feature" of the president's policies and anti-capitalist populist rhetoric that merit a separate post.)
But back to why Obama is perfectly aware of his outsourcing. This subject has been the centerpiece of his re-election campaign thus far. After three-plus years of promoting various economic policies this is the one he has chosen to highlight. The only one. He has spent millions of dollars to tell people that he cares about this. And yet, those outsourcees still have their jobs.
Remember all that talk about jobs created and saved? He saved some jobs alright -- outsourced ones. And remember I've only looked at just this one embassy. It's too silly to look for more, though I'm certain other examples exist. This could potentially involve thousands of people. In January, the State Department estimated the embassy would cost $3.5 billion, annually, to run. Think of how many jobs you could save or create with all that cheddar.
The cynical explanation for all this is that the military is not represented by the SEIU or AFCSME. When the union bosses want something this president delivers. He knows who butters his bread. This is just a case where the union bosses haven't had much to say. They just don't care, so he doesn't care.
Before the president's advisors take me literally, I am not advocating that the military be unionized and turned into the TSA. The State Department already is unionized and that's quite enough.
The third explanation is that the president is full of it and just wants to distract from discussion of the economy under Obamanomics. The monthly job report should tell you all you need to know about how well Obama is performing his "insourcing" duties, or his grasp of economics, for that matter. The president is making an absurd economic claim that he himself is spending billions -- much of it your money -- contradicting. And were he to "fix" it, it would put people's lives in danger. Obviously, this is a bit of a stark example. But it also highlights just how bogus this line line of argument is. Sometimes the examples are very simple: Labor is expensive and companies move manufacturing to a new location where it's cheaper. Sometimes jobs are moved to India. Sometimes they go to right-to-work places like South Carolina. In this case, American labor is expensive so the embassy has called upon third-country nationals. It's all outsourcing. We've seen the president move heaven and earth to try to block the opening of a new factory in South Carolina. Yet, here he is promoting outsourcing at the U.S.' largest embassy abroad and most likely at others.
So next time you hear Mr. Obama expound on outsourcing (or God help us, outsourcing vs. insourcing) remember that the president has turned to outsourced labor to protect the forward edge of the unclenched fist, the reset button, smart power, etc. etc.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
With parliamentary and presidential elections in the rear-view mirror, attention turns to the road ahead. Timor-Leste faces too many challenges to list here but following are a few of the most salient confronting the new parliament and prime minister.
Land reform: The country's economic obstacles are practically innumerable, but nothing is as fundamental to long-term development as reforming land ownership laws. Simply put, without reform, a free-market, voluntary exchange economy cannot take hold, an entrepreneurial class will not emerge, private sector wealth creation stands no chance, and Timorese won't see greater availability of affordable goods, products and services.
The current antiquated system is a throw-back to colonial times. By keeping real estate in a proverbial no-man's land, it's removed from the people who can put it to productive use for the benefit of themselves and society. Failure of the previous government to restore private property rights is one of the biggest disappointments in 10 years of independence. The new parliament and prime minister have the opportunity to correct a mistake that, left unchecked, will keep Timorese dependent on government (domestic or foreign) aid, impoverished or both.
Delivery on party platforms: Just after polls opened in Maubisse, an elderly couple talked about their frustration over broken campaign promises. I heard more of the same throughout the day. At 74 percent in the parliamentary election and 78 percent in the presidential, turnout is high. But it will quickly wane if Timorese don't see a correlation between platforms of the winners and changes, even if only incremental, on the ground.
Timor-Leste's challenges are obviously large and across-the-board. For the political parties and elected officials, it raises two questions. Can they resist the temptation to over promise on goals they can't reasonably achieve? And can they make short-term gains to give voters confidence that the electoral process produces accountability in the elected?
Democratic consolidation: Older voters who lived through colonization, invasion and occupation were forthright in talking about their right and duty to vote. Young people also turned out in large numbers amid signs that democratic traditions are taking root in younger generations. But disillusionment can emerge quickly. Corruption allegations surrounding the energy fund or growth of a glaring income gap like that seen in some Latin countries, among other issues, hold great potential to reverse confidence in representative government and the process that produces it. Consolidating democratic gains is crucial the next few years.
Managing the UN exit: Barring unforeseen circumstances, the UN mission is winding down. The UN exit, expected by the end of 2012, means the loss of jobs and aid dollars. Looming just as large is transfer of responsibility for security and stability to the new government.
Brian C. Keeter was a volunteer Timor-Leste election observer for the International Republican Institute and is providing a series of posts about the July 7th parliamentary elections. He worked at the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Bush administration and is now director of public affairs at Auburn University.
Brian C. Keeter
I'd like to follow up on my colleague Jose Cardenas' excellent post last week on the presidential election in Mexico. The PRI's Enrique Peña Nieto has won, but with only a little more than 38 percent of the vote. He will have to make deals with the opposition in the national legislature to get the much needed reforms he promised; exert his authority over the PRI at all levels, including the governors; handle any lingering student protests deftly; and win over critics in the United States and abroad who have a phobia where the PRI is concerned. All these burdens are legitimately laid on him, but the latter one is arguably unfair and unhelpful if taken too far.
As it is said, "the sins of the fathers are visited on the children to the third and fourth generations." Nevertheless, Peña Nieto should not be held accountable for the PRI's misdeeds and political culture over 71 years of rule for two very good reasons. First, he has already demonstrated in his governorship of Mexico state that though he might be a scion of the quintessential old guard, he has governed differently in many ways. For example, he was a reformer in his state as he tackled tax cheating at every level, including in his own cabinet. And Peña Nieto has experience working with an opposition legislature as governor.
Second, he has positioned himself among a line of PRI reformers. The PRI was transforming itself, albeit slowly, even from the time of Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado in the 1980s. In other words, let's give credit where it is due and see the previous three PRI presidents, even with their warts, as reformers who had already begun to free the PRI from the grip of the dinosaurs. From the 1980s on, the PRI was pro-free trade, seeking foreign investment and knocking down barriers to it. By the time of Ernesto Zedillo, the PRI was on the path to reforming and improving Mexico's democratic institutions and culture. The PRI has been choosing candidates by primaries for years now and has been learning what a legitimate opposition actually is by having to live as one. Maybe we can say that with Peña Nieto enough generations have lapsed for the sins to be expunged. It is time to start fresh with the PRI and give him a guarded benefit of the doubt.
He has started his national presence rather well, despite the accusations of electoral fraud that will be evaluated by the elections tribunal. Peña Nieto led in the polls for most of the campaign and the charges tossed about now are so far mostly about the perennial vote-buying and media bias. In the old days, the charges would have been electronic manipulation of the vote and outright ballot-box stuffing; who can forget the "computer crash" that led to the victory of Carlos Salinas in 1988 that no one doubts was fraudulent. We'll see if any of the charges hold up or if there are more serious ones, but for the most part, it appears that not even the PRD loser, Lopez Obrador, is willing to go the barricades again as he did for months his last time out.
Throughout his campaign and even now as the president-elect, Peña Nieto has said a lot of things that should encourage the United States and win over at least those segments of Mexico that understand that there is no chance of growth and prosperity without a strong commercial Mexico that works well with the United States, regional partners, and the emerging Pacific Alliance. Most important of all, Peña Nieto is determined to reform the labor laws and foreign ownership regulations that have stymied Mexico's growth. The PRI blocked these reforms while in opposition, most likely out of a stubborn refusal to allow the PAN presidents to win their biggest agenda items. But now the PRI is led by a president who campaigned to do these things because he knows, unlike the dinosaurs, that there is no other option if Mexico is to prosper. The PRI and the PAN will have a chance to make an alliance for reform. Let's hope the PAN is not stricken with foolish pride. It is certain that the PRD leftists will not try to move Mexico into the modern world of global competition and cooperation among investors and producers.
So a PRI victory can certainly be a boon for the United States. It already is in some ways regarding the security issues surrounding the drug war. Peña Nieto's tapping of the former Colombian National Police Chief, Oscar Naranjo, as his advisor speaks volumes for his commitment and determination to continue the war against those who make war on society. While he might change some tactics, the public and the new president appear as committed as ever to curtailing the violence with all the means the state can bring to the task. Will he focus more on stopping the violence and less on arresting kingpins? Perhaps, but that is not the same thing as saying he will return to the old PRI modus vivendi of making deals with outlaws. He'd lose Naranjo quickly if that is his plan and he has no interest in making both his citizens and the United States nervous by doing so.
And speaking of interests, in all the problems he'll face, the new president has zero interest in returning to his party's corporatist, statist, and sometimes violent roots. He has demonstrated with bold words and deeds that he is a modern politician of a chastened party that, having begun to reform itself and having suffered 12 years in the wilderness, knows what the future must look like. He might have been raised by the dinosaurs in his home state (which was for decades ground zero for the dinosaurs), but he talks and acts like a different breed. He appears to be a leader who can appreciate the technocrats who began the changes in his party (and he surrounds himself with U.S.-educated advisors), but so far he seems to be a politician who can get things done, who knows how to lead Mexico for what it is while looking ahead to what it can be.
Only Nixon could go to China, another saying goes. And perhaps only the PRI can take Mexico fully into a future of free trade, free labor, and freely flowing -- and abundant -- foreign investment in the moribund Mexican energy sector. The United States should not squander the opportunity to give this new leader and this hopefully newly reborn party a chance to prove his critics wrong.
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Voter turnout in the U.S. for midterm congressional elections hovers around 40 percent, often a little less. In contrast, an estimated 74 percent of Timorese turned out for the July 7th parliamentary elections.
Although a four-point drop from the first round presidential contest in March, it represents a clear signal of Timorese commitment to their young democracy. The elections were peaceful and credible.
One characteristic of a mature democracy is public engagement based on issues, not the personality of its leader. In other words, is the country focused on a forward-looking prescription for the future, or the charisma of its public face?
In Timor-Leste, resistance leaders are national heroes, and rightly so, some of them now leading political parties and coalitions. And it's their leadership, more than party platform, that often attracts many supporters in presidential and parliamentary elections.
But some voters are tuning into what political parties promised in the past and what they've since delivered. Voters we talked with in and around Maubisse and Hatu-Bulico were frustrated with unmet promises, whether it was building roads, improving education or expanding access to clean water.
In the months leading up to July 7th, many of the 21 parties and coalitions appealed to voters on the issues. Generally, they were forward-looking, easy-to-understand and focused on immediate needs in a poor country.
Campaigns relied on retail politicking -- personal contact through village meetings, rallies, and the like -- to engage voters. Although growing, voter outreach through the media is challenging and not particularly efficacious since many Timorese, especially outside Dili, lack media access, and a professional journalist class generally doesn't exist. The campaign did see the use of some social and digital media tools, including Facebook and texting, to communicate party platforms.
Final results won't be determined for a few days. To no one's surprise, CNRT has won the most seats, but a governing majority in the 65-seat parliament isn't guaranteed.
Brian C. Keeter is a volunteer Timor-Leste election observer for the International Republican Institute and is providing a series of posts about the July 7th parliamentary elections. He worked at the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Bush administration and is now director of public affairs at Auburn University.
Brian C. Keeter
This is the second in a series of posts on Timor-Leste’s July 7 parliamentary elections.
It's great to see a vibrant democracy at work.
In Timor-Leste, political parties are wrapping up active, passionate campaigns as the July 7th parliamentary elections fast approach.
Young political activists are particularly enthusiastic. FRETILIN's final campaign rally in the capitol of Dili was highly visible, raucous and in some ways resembled the atmosphere of World Cup soccer -- painted faces, party flags worn like capes, slogans shouted in unison, loads of happy supporters driving city streets in flat-bed trucks, vans and motorcycles waving banners and singing.
FRETILIN, or the Revolutionary Front for Timor-Leste Independence, is the largest and considered the most organized of the 18 parties and three coalitions facing voters. Xanana Gusmao leads the other major party, the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste, or CNRT. Like many current political leaders and candidates, Gusmao is one of the heroes of Timor-Leste's long struggle for independence.
FRETILIN and CNRT together are expected to garner the most support in proportional, party list voting for the 65-seat unicameral Parliament. But since neither party is likely to gain enough votes for a governing majority, the smaller but still influential Democratic Party may serve as "king maker," deciding with whom to join to form a coalition government.
Timor-Leste's road to freedom has been anything but easy. When Portuguese colonization ended in 1975, the country suffered brutal Indonesian occupation. As many as 250,000 Timorese, roughly 25 percent of the population, lost their lives.
In August of 1999, under UN supervision, an overwhelming majority of Timorese, 78 percent, spoke loud and clear in favor of self-governance and the right to determine their own future.
Indonesian assurances to provide security in the independence referendum were unmet. Militias loyal to Indonesia destroyed Timorese infrastructure, razed homes, and conducted random acts of violence and abuse. It's estimated that 100 percent of the country's electrical grid was rendered useless and 85 percent of buildings burned. In 2012, within a block of my hotel, I see the remaining evidence of this scorched earth policy.
An Australian-led peacekeeping force entered the country later in 1999 to end the violence and, ultimately, secure Timor-Leste independence. The upcoming parliamentary vote is the country's third round of elections since 2002 when it became the first new nation of the 21st Century.
The International Republican Institute (IRI) is observing the voting process in each of Timor-Leste's 13 districts. IRI was the first non-governmental organization to work in Timor-Leste with political parties, beginning in 2000.
IRI delegation leader Frank Wisner noted that Timor-Leste is "a country absolutely determined to create its own democratic traditions."
A new parliament will face a wave of challenges -- high unemployment, inadequate roads, and a lack of economic diversity, among many others. By all accounts, Timorese are committed to tackling these problems and fulfilling their country's hopes and dreams at the ballot box.
Brian C. Keeter is a volunteer Timor-Leste election observer for the International Republican Institute and will provide a series of posts about the July 7 parliamentary elections. He worked at the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Bush administration and is now director of public affairs at Auburn University.
Brian C. Keeter
Mexican voters go to the polls this Sunday to decide whether to return to power the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had governed the country for seventy years under a "one-party democracy." Polls show PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto comfortably ahead of his two rivals, leftist populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the incumbent center-right National Action Party (PAN).
If those polls hold, it would mean a remarkable comeback for a party that was tossed out of power in 2000 after it came to symbolize nothing more than clientelism, patronage, muscle, and corruption.
For most observers, a Peña Nieto victory raises the $64,000 question: Will he govern as a forward-looking reformer eager to modernize and accelerate Mexico's integration to the global economy, or will he simply preside over Mexico's slide back to its authoritarian and statist ways under the PRI?
This question is not just academic. This election is important for the United States because what happens in Mexico does not stay in Mexico. Instead, events there have a direct impact on U.S. interests, whether it's the health of the Mexico's $1.1 trillion economy, energy production, and security issues -- e.g., narcotics trafficking -- among a range of other important issues.
In short, we really don't know how Peña Nieto intends to govern because his campaign has been vague on many key policy issues, although he has tried to reassure voters who remember the PRI-style all too well that, as president, "[he] will govern with the most solid and free democratic principles in the world."
While only time will tell where a President Peña Nieto will lead Mexico, on one crucial issue he will not have the luxury of time or nuance. That is, the war begun by President Felipe Calderón to break the backs of the Mexican drug cartels, a courageous decision that specifically upended the PRI-model of "live and let live" and deal-cutting with the drug syndicates.
Many thus are looking for signs as to just how Peña Nieto intends to wage (or not) the war against the cartels. So far, there has been no detailed plan, only vague statements about shifting priorities to reducing violence over the primacy of taking down capos and drug seizures. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, the drug war is not a loser with the Mexican people; 8 in 10 support the use of the Mexican army against the cartels, according to Pew.
However, in a nod that Peña Nieto intends to keep the pressure on the cartels, his campaign recently announced the hiring of Colombia's former national police chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo as his drug war adviser. (Naranjo has a sterling record against Colombia's drug cartels and is well-known to both Washington and the Calderón administration.)
While that is a good sign, it still will not be easy for Peña Nieto to overcome his party's historical reluctance to take on the drug cartels or, politically, to embrace his predecessor's signature policy. It is admittedly a war fraught with great risks and enormous costs. Some believe that the extent of the counter-drug mobilization ordered by President Calderón means that any successor will have no choice but to continue forward.
One certainly hopes that is the case, but there is no guarantee. And there can be any number of gradations on how that war is fought and the underlying commitment communicated. Let's hope that Peña Nieto also understands this is a battle to take back Mexico's security and sovereignty from criminal organizations and that there is no going back to some deal-cutting modus vivendi.
Lastly, this is not just Mexico's war, but our war too. It is U.S. demand that fuels the Mexican drug trade and it is their product that blights our neighborhoods and poisons our youth. Yet a transfer of power in Mexico will necessitate a delicate diplomatic dance by the Obama administration to help keep the next government on the right path. The administration stumbled a bit trying to build a trusting relationship with the Calderón government. We need to get it right from the start this time around.
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This post is the first in a series on Timor-Leste's July 7th parliamentary elections.
One country in transition is best described as political chaos. The other has its share of economic and political growing pains but is steadily evolving as a young democracy.
One country is a poor example to its regional neighbors and the world while the other in some ways should be emulated.
One country is not much further along than when it first started, and the other, despite long odds, is on the verge of conducting its third round of elections.
Not long ago, few people would have guessed Egypt as the first country and Timor-Leste as the second.
After the fall of the Mubarak regime, Egypt enjoyed an economic infrastructure and functioning civic and government institutions that could help pave the way for its democratic transition. But despite its relative advantages, Egypt sadly remains hostage to its military rulers. Even the recent announcement of a presidential contest winner, while a small step in the right direction, is no cause for celebration after the position was gutted of real authority. Political and economic liberals are either unable or unwilling to unite, develop viable political parties or present credible alternatives to the Egyptian public.
Timor-Leste, sometimes called East Timor, is off the proverbial radar screen for many, even in foreign policy circles.
Compared to Egypt, it had no economic or political structure on which to capitalize after gaining independence. An impoverished country, it had virtually no self-governance experience for about 300 years, first as a Portuguese colony, then under brutal Indonesian occupation.
To be sure, Timor-Leste's democratic transition is far from perfect, even marred by civil conflict and violence. The country lacks economic diversity, unemployment is high and public corruption hinders efficient allocation of resources and undermines public confidence in representative government.
Still, it has conducted credible elections, seen an orderly transfer of political power, and now enjoys, for the most part, a stable peace. Its political parties are in the final stages of preparing for July 7th parliamentary elections with campaign appeals revolving around differing prescriptions for the country, particularly how to utilize the country's multi-billion dollar energy fund, not merely the cult of personality.
No struggle for independence and freedom is easy. From the new American colonies to the former Soviet states to the Middle East, more often than not, it's messy and chaotic. Timor-Leste will be no different but offers valuable insight for others in transition and for mature democracies that hope to support them.
Brian C. Keeter is a Timor-Leste election observer for the International Republican Institute and will provide a series of posts about the July 7th parliamentary elections. He served at the Department of Transportation in the Bush administration, and is director of public affairs at Auburn University.
VALENTINO DE SOUSA/AFP/GettyImages
It's official: The Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt. After a tense several months in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces attempted several times to reassert control over the levers of power, Egypt's electoral council today announced that Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, has been elected president of Egypt.
The SCAF had assured American interlocutors during the voting that they intend to swiftly hand over power to whomsoever was elected. But they also asserted a decree making themselves arbiters of the yet-to-be-written constitution and wielders of parliamentary powers until a new parliament can be elected (Egyptian courts had dismissed parliament last week, worrying many of collusion between the military and judiciary).
It is illustrative of the tumult Egypt has experienced since protests drove Hosni Mubarak from power that electing an Islamist president seems a less worrisome outcome than the election of a secular alternative that represents the corrupt "deep state" that Mubarak and his military cabal kept Egypt submerged under for 30 years.
Mubarak argued that without his strong hand, jihadist radicals would take over Egypt. American administrations of both parties agreed with him, or at least were fearful enough we did precious little to attenuate his grip. A speech on the inevitability of democracy here, some minor funding of political party organization there...but neither Republicans nor Democrats redeemed our universal values in Egypt.
Presidents of either party were unwilling to risk unwelcome change in Egypt of the kind elections brought in Palestine, where a party that brought violence into politics was voted into power. But the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not Hamas in Gaza. Even in Gaza, Hamas has lost significant public support because of its incapacity to govern. The desire for safe streets, good schools, and functioning sewer systems is the true universality on which democracy attenuates extremism.
Both in Gaza and in Egypt, Islamist parties are being held accountable, not just for ideology but for governance. This is the basis for the drop in popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after their victory in the parliamentary elections last spring. Egyptian voters were put off by their ineffectualness, by their mendacity in committing to coalition governance then taking power on their own when it proved possible, by their claiming they would not run a presidential candidate since they controlled parliament and then entering a candidate in the presidential sweepstakes.
Voters did question their motives, take them to task for their reversals. A huge part of the appeal of Brotherhood candidates in Egypt has been their opposition during the Mubarak years. They seem to have clean hands, and that is an enormous political advantage as Egypt shakes off the tawdry hold of Mubarak's spoils system. It appears to have been enough to carry the presidential election, a stunning rebuke of the "secular" military.
There is much to be concerned about with the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power. They have been staunchly anti-American. They intend to reform the basis of society with Koranic law as its foundation. They are profoundly uncomfortable with Western mores, especially where the rights of women and religious minorities are concerned.
But this does not mean Egypt's Muslim Brothers will be anti-democratic. In fact, they proved the more democratic force than SCAF since Mubarak's overthrow. There is little sign yet that they will refuse to play by the rules -- SCAF was more likely to bring about "one man, one vote, one time" than the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt's transition is disconcertingly messy. Both the process and the victors raise a serious question about how worried Americans should be about Egyptians' commitment to democracy. But with the advocates of representative government is still where we should place our bets, and offer our assistance.
Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images
The results of the first round of voting in Egypt's presidential elections has yielded a choice in the second round between two starkly different men -- former Mubarak-era prime minister and air force general Ahmed Shafik, and Muslim Brotherhood official Mohammad Morsi. For Washington, less important than which man wins is the fate of the two disparate trends they represent: military rule, with which Shafik is fairly or unfairly associated, and Islamism, championed by Morsi. Both trends present a challenge to the full unfolding of democracy in Egypt and therefore to long-term American interests.
The United States, despite its tepid and uncertain response to the uprisings across the Arab world, has a clear desire to see steady progress towards liberal democracy in the Middle East. The belief that democracy is the best guarantor of peace, stability, and prosperity in the region has been articulated not just by President Obama, but also by his predecessors in the Oval Office.
In Egypt, the two clearest threats to democracy taking root, apart from economic woes, are the uncertain willingness of the military to yield power to civilian institutions, whose powers remain ill-defined; and the disregard for individual liberties manifest in the persecution of women and minorities and the Islamists' apparent desire to intolerantly impose their views on all Egyptians.
The dilemma posed by the presidential election for Egyptian democrats and their backers overseas is that it forces a choice between these two threats to democracy rather than offering a clear path toward overcoming both. In practice, supporting emerging democracies around the globe has often meant supporting revolutionary leaders like Lech Walesa or Aung San Suu Kyi. But because Egypt's revolution was essentially leaderless, there is no Egyptian Walesa, Suu Kyi, or even Yeltsin for the U.S. to throw its support behind. Instead, Washington should support the liberal democratic policies that such a leader would represent, and to which many Egyptian activists, businessmen, and others do in fact aspire.
This means that the U.S. should set as its policy objective not only narrowly defending interests such as access to the Suez and cooperation on regional security issues, but promoting the full development of liberal democracy in Egypt and across the region. This necessarily implies both urging the military to subordinate itself to civilian institutions, and defending civil liberties and minority rights against any efforts by the Islamists and others to constrict them.
Washington should also identify and seek to strengthen its natural allies in these efforts -- the liberals who were evident in Tahrir Square, but are not represented in the forthcoming runoff. With Islamists and the military sharing power, it would be easy for visiting U.S. officials or Western embassies to neglect Egypt's liberals. This would be shortsighted; there may be no well-organized liberal alternative to the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood today, but this need not be true in perpetuity.
During the Cold War, though U.S. policies were not always consistent, it was clear that the U.S. stood for freedom and democracy. In the Middle East today, that has been far from clear, as the U.S. has responded to the Arab uprisings hesitantly, even passively. If nothing else, Washington must ensure that every person in the Middle Eastern understands that America remains committed to this vital region, and remains committed to freedom and democracy for its citizens.
The first round of the Egyptian vote for president has concluded, with a runoff to be held in June. Five of the 13 candidates are considered frontrunners and at the close of the second day of voting, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate is claiming the lead. Things couldn't be worse, no? Well, yes, they could be -- in fact, things are not so bad. Steeling myself as I anticipate my fellow democracy campaigners calling me overly optimistic, I will nevertheless plunge ahead. My optimism has a foundation.
What should evoke some optimism is 1) that this vote happened at all; 2) that it was preceded by demonstrations of grassroots political participation that has been influencing leaders for over a year and that is very likely to continue no matter who wins and no matter how entrenched the military elite remain; and 3) while we don't know the true count of the first round yet, several of the frontrunners vying for second place are not hardline Islamists. In fact, among those vying for second spot are a moderate Islamist who courts Christians, liberals, and leftists; two former Mubarak cabinet officials; and a leftist.
What we can gather from polling and journalists' reports is encouraging. Polling in Egypt, as in most developing countries and former tyrannies, is of course not very reliable, but what polls exist, in addition to much journalist-based anecdotal evidence, shows that many Egyptians, even in solidly pro-Islamist regions of the country, are wary of the Brotherhood or any Islamist party getting dominance over the country. The public has been unimpressed with, and even afraid of, too much control falling into the hands of the radicals. The Brotherhood's 6-month stint running parliament has given pause to an electorate, even among the Brotherhood's friends. Egyptians have been quoted as saying they want to see more than one party or point of view have some power. That's a democratic attitude that bodes well if a critical mass of Egyptians hold it and continue to vote that way.
And interestingly, it appears that some Egyptians are acting in the civic arena like Westerners: families are divided, and without bitterness, over candidates and party platforms.
In short, with this vote, even if the Brotherhood candidate wins it all, Egypt seems to have changed from a society that was under the sway and "tutelage" of despots to one that is awakening to the rights of citizens to choose their leaders from among many options and to hold those leaders accountable for good governance. The path forward will surely be rough at times -- probably often -- but the path forward appears to be one of Egyptians continuing to demand that government be more their servant than their master, as it has been for 5000 years.
So without getting caught up yet in the specific outcomes of the presidential election, let's recall how far Egyptians have come in the democratization of their country and appreciate why it should afford us a measure of hope -- even if there is little chance that a democratic reformer will be announced the winner next week and assume a mandate to operate within constitutional limits. We'll be able to rest more easily about the stability of Egyptian democracy when we know Egyptian grandmothers are hectoring their grandchildren to do their civic duty and go vote -- as the latter have come to take it for granted. That day is a long way off, but the last two days have been a promising start toward that day.
President Obama is right to invite France's new president to the White House in the coming weeks for a series of exploratory talks. The Obama team will understandably put a positive spin on such a visit, but I bet the motivation is as much fear as opportunity. From the point of view of American foreign policy, I think Doyle McManus has it right: Obama is sure going to miss Sarkozy.
Sarkozy was the indispensable key figure in two of the more prominent policies that Obama officials tout as "successes." First, it was Sarkozy, not Obama, who led on Libya. Without Sarkozy (and British Prime Minister Cameron) pushing the agenda, it is likely that Obama's initial policy of refusing to intervene in Libya would have held. Obama joined the bandwagon somewhat belatedly, something that even White House spinners couldn't ignore, thus giving rise to the infamous "lead from behind" frame.
Likewise, it has been Sarkozy (and the U.S. Congress) more than the Obama administration out in front on using economic coercion to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions. Obama's innovative contribution to Iran policy was the unsuccessful attempt to hold unconditional talks with the Iranian leaders in 2009. However, with Sarkozy pushing hard from one end and the U.S. Congress pushing hard from the other end, eventually, after a year or so delay, the Obama administration did join in to impose tighter sanctions.
Thus, Sarkozy may well have been the indispensable figure in two of the more prominent talking points on Obama's brag sheet. If his French partner had been more of a spoiler in the mold of Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, is it plausible to think that President Obama would have intervened in Libya or secured new rounds of multilateral sanctions on Iran?
Finding out what kind of partner President Hollande will be is a high priority for President Obama. And finding that out may also tell us some important things about President Obama. To borrow a sports analogy that the president would doubtless understand, we may learn that Obama is not as good a point guard when the other guys on his team can't or won't run the fast break.
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Yesterday's elections in France and Greece are being interpreted as a rejection of austerity policies. The French president-elect, Francois Hollande, had campaigned against the austere pact struck between defeated president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel. The leading Greek political parties had been compelled to back austerity measures as a condition of the Greek bailout; they saw their combined support slide to roughly one third of the vote.
There is a rebellious thrill to such defiance, just as when a downtrodden employee finally tells his boss just where he can put his godforsaken job. After the thrill dissipates, it helps to have a Plan B.
In Europe's case, there is already a rallying cry -- growth! Instead of the soul-crushing paring away of social programs and the painful levying of taxes, Europe can just grow its way out of its problems. A faster-growing economy lifts people out of unemployment, reducing the need for welfare payments, and generates tax revenues as the people receive their new paychecks. The newly employed are newly confident, so they go out and spend. This further stokes the economy, creating a virtuous cycle.
The only catch is how to get this whole "growth" thing started. Here's one idea: The countries of Europe could get together, honestly critique the structural failings that have plagued their economies, acknowledge the need for radical change, and resolve to embrace reform. The European Union could set a strategic goal "to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion."
The quotes are there because this comes directly from the press release describing the EU's Lisbon growth strategy in March 2000. The concept of growth is not a new one. That particular strategy preceded a decade in which tepid reforms in many countries, fiscal laxity, and unchecked housing bubbles left the zone in its present state. This is not to argue that a failed past run at reform precludes trying again. But it does point out the obstacles to growth by proclamation.
Where else might one look for growth? Critics of austerity will point to the possibility of false economies. For example, if a worker renounces spending on transportation in an attempt at frugality, then fails to show up at work, the ensuing loss of that worker's job undoes any budgetary benefit from the saved gas money. The worker would have been better off spending a little to earn more. Applied to a country, the argument would be that some judiciously applied stimulus or well placed investments could launch that virtuous growth cycle described above.
That's plausible enough. But, as with growth by proclamation, the idea of government spending to boost the economy is not a novelty in Europe. It is possible to have long, involved debates about the past effects of such spending, or whether this time would be different. In the interests of brevity, though, one can circumvent such a debate with the simple requirement that if an individual or a country is to borrow more, there must be someone willing to lend. Our worker who needs wheels for a way to work can go to the bank and get a car loan, if the bank is persuaded of the wisdom of the venture. What of France and Spain and Greece? If they are to borrow more, they must find willing lenders. At the moment, those seem rather scarce. Private credit seems to be drying up. China has been unenthused about European proposals that it buy up debt. The United States is a borrower itself, competing (successfully) for lenders' favor. Germany could lend the money, but its skepticism led to the austerity pact in the first place.
The alternatives to austerity seem ever fewer. One popular one -- a eurobond (a variant of fiscal union) -- is not much different from finding willing lenders. In this case, instead of lenders, our borrowing countries just need to find someone to co-sign their loans. It has not escaped Germany's notice that its liability as a co-signatory is not much different than it would be as a lender.
Then there is the European Central Bank. Aren't central banks supposed to be lenders of last resort? Actually, the ECB is prohibited from funding governments this way, but it has overcome some of those inhibitions and found some clever ways around such strictures (lend the money to troubled banks, who then buy up sovereign debt). One can argue whether the risks of aggressive monetary policy outweigh the benefits (see Robert Samuelson today). In any case, the ECB has made clear that its intervention should not be seen as an easy substitute for fiscal control and reform.
If Greece were not in the euro zone, the International Monetary Fund would surely have suggested that it seek growth through a currency depreciation. That still may be Greece's best hope, but it will hardly offer an escape from austerity. A Greece that renounced its remaining debts and left the euro would still need primary budget balance.
Europe has maneuvered itself into a difficult spot. The Keynesian prescriptions for government spending to counteract slumps presume that governments saved in the good times. Many of Europe's troubled governments did not. That leaves them with few good options now. So, in a twist on the old cry accompanying changes in European leadership: Austerity is dead! Long live austerity!
After Republican leaders rightly criticized Senator Obama, a former state legislator with merely two years in the U.S. Senate, for being unqualified to be commander-in-chief and leader of the free world during the 2008 campaign, it would be an irony if they selected Marco Rubio, a former state legislator with merely two years in the U.S. Senate, as vice president in the 2012 election.
Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie will almost certainly not be the vice presidential nominee for the simple reason that they don't want to be president. Both declined to run for the top job because, if rumors are to be believed, they were unwilling to undergo the rigors and personal scrutiny that a presidential campaign brings. If they were unwilling to do so for the presidency, why would they do so for the much lesser prize of the vice presidency?
Paul Ryan, meanwhile, is too valuable to the GOP in the House. As one of the more serious-minded legislators in the party, he would be wasted on the vice presidency.
Besides which, the vice presidential nominee almost never makes an actual difference in the election. The great myth is that the presidential nominee should pick a VP from a swing state in order to win more votes there. The problem is, that never happens. Perhaps once in American history has the VP delivered his state and swung an election: LBJ bringing Texas to give JFK the prize in 1960. That's it, just once.
So it comes down to this: Who is actually qualified to be president? That's the question Mitt Romney should be asking in selecting his running mate. That's the only criterion that should really matter. There are very few people in the country with a plausible claim to being qualified for the presidency. Unfortunately, Bob Gates has definitively retired, reducing the number of candidates by one.
That leaves David Petraeus. Petraeus served as commanding general of both wars the U.S. fought over the last decade, headed up central command, and is now director of the CIA. And, of course, he had the courage and professionalism to serve in a deeply unpopular war and, remarkably, come out with his reputation enhanced. Probably no person alive has a better grasp of the international situation, America's role in the world, and the limitations and capabilities of American power.
Petraeus has nearly universal name recognition and is one of the most well-respected figures in the country. A year ago only 11 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of him, according to Gallup, half that of Christie. And as a non-partisan figure he has not been tarnished by the partisanship and mud-slinging of recent years. Additionally, Petraeus would bring foreign policy expertise to the ticket, balancing Romney's focus on economic issues. If Obama really intends to claim that his foreign policy accomplishments should earn voters' respect, there is no one in the country with more credibility than Petraeus to take Obama's argument apart.
He would bring gravitas and seriousness to a campaign season that, so far, has been more memorable for the parade of not serious GOP challengers who, thankfully, had the decency to drop out. His intelligence and ethic of public service would be a good match for Romney's own. I admit "Romney-Rubio" has a nice, almost poetic ring to it; it rolls off the tongue beautifully. "Romney-Petraeus" has too many syllables. It sounds like something out of a technical manual, or a nickname for a loophole in the tax code. On the other hand, they might actually govern competently, which counts for something.
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Trilateral dialogues come in many forms. Those that mix allies with competitors can have the deleterious consequences of diminishing like-mindedness for the sake of inclusivity. More successful trialogues combine like-minded countries that can bring capabilities to bear in ways that cut across national and regional divides, creating an effect that is greater than the sum of its parts.
One of the unfortunate consequences of the rhetoric surrounding the U.S. "pivot" to Asia was the perception that Washington, even as it intensified its commitment to trans-Pacific leadership, was pivoting away from Europe, home to its historic allies. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell is working hard to correct that interpretation and transcend regional divides -- by leading a U.S. push to coordinate with Europe on Asia in unprecedented ways.
As he told the Trilateral Forum Tokyo organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Tokyo Foundation today, there are enormous opportunities for the Atlantic allies to work together in a structured, systematic way in rising Asia. These include:
Burma, where a historic political opening can be constructively encouraged (and where backsliding on liberalization can be deterred) through close coordination between the United States and the European Union, including via a graduated loosening of the sanctions that helped spur Burma's military government to opt for managed political change -- and where the allies can bring to bear lessons learned in Europe (for instance, in the Balkans) to support Burma's fragile process of ethnic reconciliation.
China, where U.S. and European concerns over issues like human rights, protection of intellectual property, and rule of law are convergent, and where the West wields much more leverage than commonly understood as a result of being China's dominant trade and investment partners.
Asian institution-building, where no one can teach Asian nations with only a superficial history of multilateral cooperation more about how to build durable and robust regional institutions in the fields of security, trade and investment, and transnational governance.
Security issues, where Europeans have not been pivotal players since the days of gunboat imperialism a century ago, but where a more global Europe must step up its game as competition among Asia's rising and established powers creates dangerous security dilemmas that threaten international security and prosperity.
This is more than just talk: American and European officials now meet regularly on an Asia-specific agenda; the United States and the EU have agreed to roll out a new mechanism for transatlantic cooperation on Asia at the next ASEAN Regional Forum summit this summer. This is an initiative that should be welcomed by Asian officials who overwhelmingly believe Europe punches below its weight in Asia, despite the resilience of European power and ideas in the world, deep economic ties, and the increasingly global impact of developments across the Indo-Pacific region.
The reality is that for too many European nations -- and for too many European Union officials -- China trade policy has been a substitute for an all-of-Asia strategy that encompasses the full spectrum of Western interests and leverages Western ties to powers of great significance, including Japan, South Korea, India, and Indonesia. For their part, American officials until recently have given little creative thought to connecting the two alliance systems that the United States has built and nurtured for 60 years, spanning the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, into a more global arrangement that transcends bureaucratic stovepipes constructed for another era.
Asia's rise is a global phenomenon, not simply a regional one: to take just one example, consider how China's rise affects global energy markets, global governance, and developments in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. At the same time, military modernization and intensifying competition within Asia -- between Japan and China, North and South Korea, and India and China, for instance -- implicates Western powers with deep ties to Tokyo, Seoul, New Delhi, and Beijing.
Power shifts within Asia promise to displace existing balances in ways that will require the United States, to sustain its leadership, to secure every advantage it can in a more fluid environment by working with its friends, many of whom are in Europe. From the Asian perspective, every key power has a compelling stake in Europe's ability to emerge from its sovereign debt crisis and restore economic growth. Despite wishful thinking about decoupling between the West and the rest, the global economy cannot grow sustainably as long as Europe, a primary market for and source of Asian trade and investment, is in the grip of recession.
Given the overlapping interests of Asian and Western democracies, it only makes sense to coordinate much more systematically, rather than relying on a set of outdated regional toolkits unadapted to a more globalized century. Similarly, to the extent that China is both a top economic partner and top security concern for so many countries, it only makes sense for them to use their combined influence to manage relations with Beijing from a position of strength -- rather than succumb to a more national approach that will disadvantage every country that cannot alone match China's clout.
For these reasons, the U.S. State Department's effort to bridge that Atlantic and Pacific communities, if matched by seriousness in European and Asian capitals, promises to pay dividends for Western interests in a more non-Western world.
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It is bad enough to read that the military has launched a coup in Mali and ousted the democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Touré. Even those of us who believe that Francis Fukuyama made a sound and defensible point about the "end of history" know that there will continue to be setbacks for a long time in much of the developing world. Just because there is now no credible social, economic, or political argument in defense of tyranny does not mean that there won't still be attempts to make that argument by self-serving or even well-meaning putchists.
But it is most disheartening to learn how and why the coup came about just weeks before a scheduled election that was to peacefully replace Touré, only the second democratically elected president of a democratic Mali. Worse still to learn of the reaction to this coup by Malians who should know better.
Mali was somewhat of a success story in the African Sahel region. Only five years ago it hosted the Community of Democracies gathering attended by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. As we planned for this event (I was then the deputy assistant administrator for democracy and government programs at USAID), there was considerable internal discussion of how well things might go and what the optics would be like for the world's democracy promoters (states as well as NGOs) to gather in Bamako for this important meeting. All were aware that there was of course still much poverty and lack of development in Mali along with unresolved tribal and sectional strife. But the elected government of Touré had been for several years working with the IMF and World Bank and other international donors to cut spending and regulation and improve governance. So it was deemed worthwhile to hold the meeting there. It was a success and the Malian government was a gracious host.
Fast forward to today, a few days after an ill-planned coup by what appear to be incompetent military leaders who have already broken their promises to begin restoring democratic order. Sanctions have been imposed and there are reports that the rebels in the north have taken advantage of the chaos and are furthering their rebellion and implementing sharia law, while as many as 200,000 people are fleeing.
So, democracy has been violently interrupted and al Qaeda, which has designs on Mali as it does in the rest of the Sahel, now has a widening gap in which to insert themselves and to work their wicked will.
But all these problems are compounded by the reaction of the Malians themselves. The coup has been welcomed by various civic groups, peasant leaders as well as other important sectors. Their interest in maintaining democratic processes is as weak, apparently, as the Touré government. The reason is because they have not seen sufficient improvements to their livelihood and an end to the northern rebellion. They have also grown fed-up with the way in which foreign interests have been able to, in their view, exploit the country and its land resources. Their motto is "peace first, elections later."
This is the enduring problem we see in several areas of the developing and democratizing world: Democracy and markets cannot make enough headway before the people become disillusioned to the point of being willing to welcome a coup if it will achieve the objectives they seek. There seems to be no permanent turning away from democracy and polls continue to show that people support democracy and want it for their country. We see this in parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. But some people in some states and regions are not willing to endure the progress that democracy can make only slowly. And there is a severe shortage of indigenous far-sighted leaders who should be encouraging the public to work tirelessly and patiently for democratic success instead of taking advantage of public disillusionment and rancor to promote themselves.
This is not a flaw in democracy, representative institutions, or law-based governance. The question is not whether freedom and liberty under law is the solution to lack of development and disorder. They are the only elements that can bring sustained order and progress.
The question is how long will it take and will the public endure the wait? That question is answered only by cultural factors, but Western and international forces can help with wise policy and firm commitments to the democratic path. Now is the time for the West and the U.N. and related organizations to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with African organizations and the leaders of other African countries who are condemning the coup, imposing sanctions, and insisting on a return to normal democratic order. It is also time to support, encourage, and even warn Mali's civil society leaders that they should not make a deal with the devil, as it were, by welcoming violations of democratic order in hopes that good can come of it. Good is very likely not to come of it, especially with a deepening and widening rebellion in the north that the incompetent military cannot control and that is being used to its advantage by terrorist groups like al Qaeda.
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As someone who has worked on human rights and democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy, one of the questions I most often hear is "Why does the U.S. think it can 'impose' democracy on other countries?" My answer is always the same. We never impose democracy on other countries, we support the individuals and organizations in any country that share our commitment to universal human rights and a desire for freedom for themselves and their nations. Courageous freedom fighters risk their lives to stand against oppression whether or not we stand with them, but America is at its best when we do. The Freedom Collection website, newly launched by the George W. Bush Institute, provides an influential platform for dissidents and human rights advocates to speak publicly about their dreams of freedom and the risks they take to pursue them. It is a compelling reminder that democratic aspirations are not American things we impose but, in fact, reside in the hearts and minds of women and men in every nation.
The case of Burma highlights how steadfast American support for dissidents and their democracy movements can eventually lead to change that is good for them and good for America. As a tentative reform process unfolds under President Thein Sein, the elections scheduled for Sunday, April 1, in which Aung San Suu Kyi is contesting a seat, already are flawed but offer the latest reason for hope that democracy may still take root in this beleaguered S.E. Asian country. The road remains difficult and tenuous, but a cautious optimism has seized the country.
For decades, the U.S. has been providing unwavering support for the Burmese democracy movement -- rhetorically, financially and diplomatically. Every administration and members of the U.S. Congress on both sides of the aisle, have maintained a strong human rights policy on Burma. There has been a strong set of sanctions in place, but even more important has been the significant financial support we have given through the National Endowment for Democracy to the many small exile organizations along the Thai and Indian borders with Burma. With American support and protection, these activist organizations run by exiles have been tracking political prisoners inside the country, planning for a federalist system, documenting horrific human rights abuses of the military regime, convening diverse ethnic nationalities so that they may work together, and reporting or broadcasting news into the closed country.
For years, the influence of these groups was minimal, but it was for such a time as this that the preparations were made to take advantage of small openings and translate them into big change. Many, though not all, political prisoners have been freed and some exiles are returning. As dissidents and former exiles are allowed to participate in the political system, the preparations they have made will be essential for overcoming the serious challenges they will, no doubt, face.
The Freedom Collection highlights several of the most inspiring women's voices from diverse ethnic groups in Burma, all of whom have received support for their work from the U.S. government. Along with Aung San Suu Kyi, Khin Ohmar, Charm Thong, Cheery Zahau, and Dr. Cynthia Maung are from the Burman, Shan, Chin and Karen ethnic groups respectively and have modeled a peaceful and democratic future for the country through their advocacy and collaboration across geography and ethnicity. Burma watchers all agree that one of the biggest challenges remaining, even if democracy returns to the country, is resolving historical conflicts between the various ethnic groups. The military has perpetrated some its worst abuses against minority groups, including widespread use of rape as a weapon of war by the Burmese military. Women's groups across the spectrum all have been advocating an end to these terrible crimes.
I was privileged to work directly with Charm Thong and others of the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN) to raise awareness of this issue after they published their important report called Licence to Rape in 2002. Women's groups of other ethnic nationalities have published similar reports and all ethnic minority women suffer under this pervasive threat. The encouraging story is that all of these women's groups also work collaboratively together through the umbrella Women's League of Burma that includes majority Burman women. Together they have shown that all the ethnic groups in Burma desire human rights and are able to work together to achieve them. I'm proud to call these women friends and proud that my country stood with them in their struggle. On the Freedom Collection site, Mrs. Laura Bush narrates an important video on the power of women to bring change in countries from Iran to Liberia to Burma. Though every road from tyranny to freedom is rough and winding, I believe in Burma it will be paved primarily by women.
1) Taiwanese politics are maturing and changing. Inside baseball terms, such as the "1992 consensus," do not have much meaning to the average Taiwanese voter. Even for Taiwanese who are "mainlanders" -- meaning that they or their parents were born on the mainland of China -- their children and grandchildren who are born in Taiwan have no memory of or emotional bond to China. Taiwan now has its own consensus: Taiwanese want to benefit from trade with China while maintaining their dignity as citizens of Taiwan. The system works and the Taiwanese people end up with the policies they want. These policies include a robust trading relationship with China and the world, stability and peace across the Strait, and acceptance of Taiwan's de facto independence. On the one hand, DPP candidate Tsai Ying-wen gained 45 percent of the vote by making a fundamental criticism that Ma Ying-Jeou was not being fastidious enough in protecting Taiwan's sovereignty in his negotiations with China. This argument has some appeal to many Taiwanese. On the other hand, Tsai was not able to convince voters that she would ratify the gains Ma made in cross-Strait trade and stability while also protecting Taiwan's sovereignty. Elections in Taiwan are increasingly about which candidate can successfully engage China while protecting Taiwan's status. Though voters had their doubts about Ma, he won that critical argument decisively.
2) Any thought of "abandoning" Taiwan should be relegated to ivory tower social science labs (if such things exist). It is not only immoral, it is wholly impractical. The vast majority of Taiwanese (the numbers vary, but are probably close to 90 percent) want to maintain the status quo -- Taiwan's de facto independent status without conflict. Debates in Taiwan are increasingly about whether Taiwan is independent under the name the Republic of China (the KMT's position) or under the Republic of Taiwan (the DPP's position). The rest is a debate over tactics, such as how far and how fast Taiwan's leaders should discuss anything but trade and economic issues with China. The vast majority of Taiwanese would simply leave the island if the U.S. withheld support, a boon to Northern California perhaps, but a stain on America's honor and a severe blow to the kind of Asia we want.
3) It is increasingly awkward for China to remain authoritarian. China's brethren in Taiwan have now undergone their fourth really competitive presidential election. It was spirited, free, and fair. Voters got to hear a debate on Taiwan's future. Now Chinese have even more access to Taiwan and simply do not buy their government's condescending arguments that Chinese people are not "ready" for democracy. Taiwan's democracy works, in a Confucian cultural setting. Taiwan's economy is thriving and it is the envy of many developing countries. Taiwan had to sacrifice neither economic growth nor stability for democracy. This year China is going through its own "selection" process for President. What is the argument against democracy in China now? That the people are less developed or inferior to Taiwanese?
4) Democracy in China would probably have the same effect over time on cross-Strait relations. The Chinese people would also opt for moderation and stability. The debate would most likely be over how to repair the humiliation the Chinese suffered at the hands of Western and Japanese colonialists -- still a very charged issue among Chinese citizens -- while letting the long-suffering Taiwanese people enjoy their own identity and basic rights. All sorts of solutions might emerge (e.g. a commonwealth system) that would let the Chinese people live in peace and prosperity as well.
5) Until that time, the U.S. must stand shoulder to shoulder with Taiwan. In many respects it is U.S. blood and treasure, spent over decades, that set the conditions for the Taiwan miracle. There is no sense letting the sacrifices of Americans who fought and died for freedom in Asia be in vain. Washington must hold out until politics in China changes, which would pave the way for a peaceful democratic solution.
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Taiwan's upcoming elections on January 14th look set to be a close-run thing. In the presidential contest, incumbent Ma Ying-Jeou's Kuomintang (KMT) is locked in a tight race with Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Less important than the policy specifics of who prevails is the spectacle of a lively, democratic election in a free Chinese society. Taiwanese may rightly fear China's overweening military power and growing economic leverage. But it is rulers in Beijing who will watch nervously as citizens across the Taiwan Strait who look like them, speak their language, and share their culture freely and peacefully choose their leaders.
Unlike a senior Obama administration official -- who last September used an interview with the Financial Times to inappropriately inject Washington into Taiwanese domestic politics by suggesting that the United States did not believe Tsai Ing-wen was ready to govern - most Shadow Government types presumably hold no position on who should win on January 14th. The election is an opportunity, however, to highlight a troubling argument in American foreign policy circles over whether Taiwan has become a strategic liability for the United States.
A gathering debate is underway in Washington over whether Taiwan is a spoiler, rather than a partner, in America's Asia strategy as President Obama continues the efforts of Presidents Bush and Clinton to "pivot" towards the region.
The core of this argument assumes that relations between the United States and mainland China will define the 21st century -- and that they should not be held hostage to the legacy of the civil war between Chinese Nationalists and Communists in the 1940s. Why should Washington risk its relationship with the rising superpower of 1.3 billion people over its ties to a small island nation of only 23 million, given the high military and economic stakes for the United States of a conflicted relationship with Beijing? In this view, China and America could enjoy a fruitful partnership if only the thorn in the side of the relationship posed by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan could be removed. Without arms sales, of course, Taiwan would have no choice but to rapidly accept the mainland's terms for unification, irrespective of the views of the Taiwanese people.
But arguments to let Taiwan go get strategy backwards. First, cutting off an old U.S. ally at a time of rising tensions with an assertive China might do less to appease Beijing than to encourage its hopes to bully the United States into a further retreat from its commitments in East Asia. Second, it would transform the calculus of old American allies, like South Korea and Australia, who might plausibly wonder whether the U.S. commitment to their security is as flexible as it was towards Taiwan.
In particular, Japan, the United States' most important ally in Asia, may have few viable strategic options to maintain an independent foreign policy without a free Taiwan. As China's military power casts a growing shadow over its neighbors, Japan's capacity to maintain strategic choice may hinge on Taiwan's ability to retain autonomy from the mainland in ways that preclude a hostile China from projecting military power from Taiwan into the sea lanes that are the Japanese economy's lifeline.
Third, abandoning Taiwan would upend the calculations of new U.S. partners like India and Vietnam, whose leaders have made a bet on U.S. staying power and the associated benefits of strengthening relations with America as a hedge against China. Fourth, such preemptive surrender would reinforce what remains more a psychological than a material reality of China emerging as a global superpower of America's standing -- which it is not and may never be. Finally, and most importantly, it would resurrect the ghosts of Munich and Yalta, where great powers decided the fate of lesser nations without reference to their interests - or the human consequences of offering them up to satisfy the appetites of predatory great powers.
Taiwan's people may one day vote to reunify with (a politically liberalizing) China. The choice should be left to the Chinese and Taiwanese people, acting through legitimately elected leaders. That's why Taiwan's election this week -- made possible by a regional security environment underwritten by the United States and its allies -- is strategically significant, irrespective of who prevails.
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Monday night in Caracas, opposition candidates to President Hugo Chávez held their first debate to decide who will challenge him in the scheduled October 2012 Venezuelan presidential election. In a sign of their continuing political maturation, the candidates rightly addressed bread-and-butter issues that matter to the vast majority of Venezuelans, such as the country's skyrocketing crime rate and Chávez's poor management of the Venezuelan economy.
The debate represented another important step forward in the Venezuelan opposition's long road back to political relevance. For most of the past decade, the image of the opposition -- shared by official opinion in Washington -- has not been favorable. It was seen as disorganized, hopelessly divided, and lacking in a vision that could cut into the broad working-class support for Hugo Chávez. That has been changing, however.
And with serious questions being raised about Chávez's health, and whether he will even survive until October of next year (in a telling recent comment, Chávez told his followers that, "The revolution cannot depend on one man"), all of a sudden the Venezuelan opposition takes on a whole new importance - one that the Obama administration must recognize and adapt to accordingly.
The leading candidates are Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state, which includes much of Caracas; Pablo Pérez, governor of oil-rich Zulia state; Leopoldo López, former mayor of Chacao municipality in Caracas; and Maria Corina Machado, a founder of the civil society organization Súmate.
All four represent a new generation of Venezuelans with no ties to the old-line parties that Chávez has used as fodder in his rise to power. All the candidates convey youthful vigor and an understanding that today's Venezuela is vastly different than that of their parents. They say they want to break down the country's polarization under Chávez and provide more opportunities for marginalized communities. They also say they will unite behind whoever wins their February 2012 primary for the right to take on Chávez.
Any of the candidates can win over wealthy and middle-class voters; the key is whether they can win over disaffected Chávez supporters fed up with the hash he has made of the Venezuelan economy, the deterioration of public services, and soaring street crime.
Make no mistake about it, however: if somehow Chávez remains healthy enough to campaign and make it until next October, he will be re-elected. His popularity, willingness to spend billions for his re-election, and his control of the electoral mechanisms make him the prohibitive favorite. But that is the point -- if he is healthy. If he succumbs to his cancer, then all bets are off.
Thus, the Obama administration needs to approach the election as anything but a perfunctory Chávez victory and instead prepare for a possible tectonic shift in Venezuelan politics. That means expressions of solidarity with candidates who are trying to play by democratic rules and speaking out against Chavista attempts to rig the election for his chosen successor, if it comes to that. Chávez's faltering health means that there is every chance October 2012 will bring an opportunity for the Venezuelan people to chart a new course, one that combines an awareness of the great disparities in Venezuelan society without the radicalism, rancor, polarization, and anti-Americanism of the past twelve years. It is crucial therefore that Washington not be on the sidelines as these events play out, but is actively engaged to promote our considerable interests in such an outcome.
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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.