Shadow Government

Obama's Hugo Chavez headache

No matter how hard the Obama Administration tries to "reset" U.S. relations with Latin America, Hugo Chavez is there to spoil the fun. After coming into office believing that George W. Bush was singularly responsible for frayed relations with a gaggle of radical populist regimes in the region, and all that was needed to set things right was the president extending an open hand and flashing his biography, the administration is finding out that things aren't so simple.

After 18 or so months of the Obama presidency, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez continues to bully domestic opponents, aid and abet Iran's effort to evade international sanctions, and provide material and moral support for Colombian narco-terrorist groups operating next door.

And, now, Chavez has rejected Obama's new ambassador.

It seems the administration's nominee, eminently qualified career diplomat Larry Palmer, who served as President Bush's ambassador to Honduras, provided a series of forthright answers to "Questions for the Record" submitted by the Ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN). 

Such "QFRs" are part and parcel of the Senate confirmation process and are used by Senators to satisfy themselves that a nominee (or the administration) has a good grasp of the political dynamics in the country to which he has been nominated before their nomination is voted on by the full Senate. 

Senator Lugar's questions were admittedly sharp; but then again Ambassador Palmer is not being nominated to go to Uruguay.

Responding to Senator Lugar's question about recent Venezuelan government repression against owners of an independent TV station, Ambassador Palmer replied, "I share your deep concerns about limitations on freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Venezuela." On another question regarding free and fair elections, he replied, "I am also concerned by the increasing centralization of power in the executive branch."

But what really has appeared to have gotten under Chavez's skin was a Palmer comment on the Venezuelan armed forces, that, "Morale is reported to be considerably low, particularly due to politically-oriented appointments." And, when questioned on Chavez's ties to narco-terrorist in Colombia: "I am keenly aware of the clear ties between members of the Venezuelan government and Colombian guerrillas."

Armchair analysts can debate whether Palmer's answers were "diplomatic," but the fact is he had little choice but to speak the truth. Anything less than the forthright answers he gave would likely have led to a hold on his nomination by Senate Republicans and political blowback against the president that his administration was soft-peddling the true nature of the Chavez government and its destructive policies at home and abroad.

Still, the administration deserves credit for not sugar-coating their responses, although now their options are few. They cannot now withdraw Palmer and submit another candidate. The policy bar has already been set. The administration is not going to refute itself and maintain any credibility. They are just going to have to sit tight and let Hugo Chavez decide whether he wants a U.S. ambassador in Caracas. And, until he does make up his mind, his ambassador in Washington, Bernardo Alvarez, should be immediately informed to start searching on-line for a cheap one-way ticket back to Caracas.     

Regardless, at the end of the day, not having a U.S. ambassador in Venezuela will hardly matter in the great scheme of things -- at least to anyone who doesn't believe George Bush was the root of all evil in our hemispheric relationships. 

Shadow Government

Stop talking about the mosque; start doing something to help Pakistan

I have held off commenting on the "Ground Zero mosque" controversy, in part because it seemed to be primarily a domestic political issue but mainly because I was dismayed by the hyperbole, demagoguery, and dishonest argumentation I found -- and, sadly, there are plenty of culprits on both sides of the debate. Some of the debate has been principled, nuanced, and careful, but not enough of it has and like an email flame war, the rhetoric has escalated even as the actual underlying points of dispute have narrowed.

However, one underappreciated point of consensus in the debate has prompted me to weigh in. Both sides of the debate appear to agree on one narrow claim: that the Ground Zero mosque is an important issue, symbolic or otherwise, in the ideological struggle in which the war on terror is embedded -- what Bush administration insiders referred to as the war of ideas.

I think it is certainly relevant to the war of ideas. Al Qaeda has sought to turn a broad civil war within the Muslim world into a war between Islam and the infidels (everyone else). If al Qaeda ever succeeded in that aim, our prospects for success would dim considerably. In fact, as President Bush and his advisors made clear within hours of the 9/11 attacks, and as leaders from both parties have emphasized repeatedly ever since -- and as most Americans have accepted to a remarkable degree -- the United States has not viewed the war on terror as a war against Islam. On the contrary, Americans have expended considerable blood and treasure to help protect Muslim victims of al Qaeda and other like-minded terrorist groups. And American leaders have sought, wherever possible, to reach out to the Muslim world and highlight America's long tradition of religious freedom and unrivaled record as a society that welcomes and integrates immigrants from all walks of life.

President Obama has made this particular aspect of the ideological struggle a personal priority of his and he deserves some credit for doing so.

Yet, all of the focus on the Ground Zero mosque controversy may now be having the ironic effect of distracting us from a much more important and much more urgent issue in that ideological struggle: the vast humanitarian crisis caused by the floods in Pakistan. The human toll is staggering, and that alone ought to be enough to prompt an outpouring of generosity from the American people.

But if you are not moved by the human suffering, perhaps the national-security concerns will prompt you into action. Pakistan is at the epicenter of the war on terror, and it is hard to see how that larger struggle will turn out well if the Pakistani state collapses and the society plunges into anarchy. The country was already teetering on the edge with a bankrupt economy, severe food and water problems, and an ongoing insurgency in Balochistan. And, by the way, al Qaeda and other terrorist networks are primarily in Pakistan, not Afghanistan -- indeed, several of the recent attempted terrorist attacks in the United States have originated from or had links to groups in Pakistan. Oh, and Pakistan has a sizable nuclear arsenal.

The stakes in Pakistan are exceptionally high and the international response thus far has been inadequate. The United States has done better than most, but we could do more. The most successful things the Bush administration ever did in the war of ideas were the rapid and substantial responses to the Asian tsunami of 2004/2005 and the Pakistan earthquake of 2005. More than anything, our actions confounded critics in the Muslim world (and elsewhere) and thwarted al Qaeda's goal of fostering a war between Islam and the West.

The current Pakistan crisis dwarfs both of those prior disasters, but the international response, beginning with ours, has not yet been commensurate. There are many reasons for that, but maybe one of those reasons is our national preoccupation with the mosque debate.

Perhaps it is time for our national attention to pivot from the mosque controversy on to the far more serious Pakistan crisis. Perhaps it is time for all of those political leaders and pundits who have scored points on their partisan enemies on this issue to take a pause, make a donation to the International Red Cross, and urge others to do the same.