Shadow Government

Don’t reward Ecuador with a new U.S. ambassador

The only thing more incongruous than the Ecuadorean government's statement that they hoped that their recent expulsion of U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges wouldn't harm U.S.-Ecuador relations is that the Obama administration apparently hopes it doesn't either. Days after President Rafael Correa kicked Ambassador Hodges out of the country, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño called Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela to discuss the matter (including the reciprocal expulsion of the Ecuadorean ambassador in Washington). In describing the conversation, an Ecuadorean official said the two confirmed "the political will of both parties to reach a solution to the diplomatic impasse."

The "impasse" began April 5, when Correa PNG'd Hodges over the contents of a Wikileaked cable justifying revoking the U.S. visa of the corrupt former head of the Ecuadorean National Police. In a sidebar comment, the cable noted that the official's corrupt activities were so well-known that it was unlikely Correa was unaware of them when he appointed the official to the top job. For the notoriously thin-skinned and impetuous Correa, this was too much, and Hodges was given 48 hours to leave the country.

One would think that such an affront would derail Assistant Secretary Valenzuela's efforts to "engage" with governments like Correa's that are fundamentally hostile to U.S. interests in the region. But that doesn't appear to be the case. Whatever was said during that conversation did not disabuse the Ecuadoreans of the notion that things couldn't be patched up "in a few weeks or a couple of months."

What is clear is that, according to the full batch of leaked cables, tensions between the U.S. embassy and the Correa government had been building for months, with the Correa government looking for any and all opportunities to criticize U.S. actions. The cables further reveal the U.S. embassy's profound lack of trust in President Correa and their continuing frustration trying to establish a working relationship with his government. (Were these cables being read in Washington?)

They report that Correa has surrounded himself with a claque of inveterate anti-Americanists dedicated to damaging bilateral relations and the U.S. image in Ecuador. They have interfered in the work of U.S.-sponsored and trained special police units that combat trafficking in drugs and persons. A disturbing number -- including the foreign minister -- have close ties to Cuba, Hugo Chavez, and Colombian narco-terrorists.

Against this backdrop, it is beyond comprehension why there would be any U.S. haste in restoring ambassadors in both capitals. Correa is already under fire by Ecuadorean exporters concerned that his rash action will deprive Ecuador of trade benefits under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, which is subject to congressional approval. Beyond that, it is unclear what tangible benefits have accrued for U.S. interests from a "make nice" policy with Correa to date. Rather than diplomatic shadow dancing with unfriendly governments, U.S. policy in the region should focus on better helping our friends succeed while demonstrating the negative impacts on populations whose governments pursue mindless and anachronistic ideologies.

RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Panetta’s challenges at the Pentagon

I agree with Shadow Government's Dov Zakheim that Obama played it safe in tapping Leon Panetta to replace Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. Quite apart from the need to fight and win two (sorry, three) wars, Panetta will face three major challenges:

First, he is not Bob Gates: Gates benefited more than he should have from not being Donald Rumsfeld. The contrast between the two men is often overblown, and in many ways more a matter of style than substance. Indeed, in recent months, Gates' calls for the Pentagon to reform and the Services to transform have sounded positively Rumsfeldian.

Conversely, Panetta will suffer -- again, perhaps more than he should -- for not being Robert Gates. Gates leaves behind enormous shoes that any successor would have difficulty filling.

Second, the budget: The timing of Gates' departure has more than a little to do with the fact that the White House dropped the demand to cut an additional $400 billion from the defense budget on the Pentagon 24 hours before the President went public with it. In the process, the president undercut Gates' own statements that the Defense Department could not afford further cuts with two (strike that, three) wars going on simultaneously. Panetta was presumably an attractive choice as Defense Secretary at least in part because of his experience in cutting budgets, and he is being dispatched to the Pentagon at least in part to trim the budget. He will presumably oversee the process of reducing the force structure that the administration's own 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review only fifteen months ago said was necessary to win today's wars and prepare for the future.

Third, managing civil-military friction: Budget cuts are likely to exacerbate tensions between civilian and military leaders, but so may other issues.  Panetta will be charged with implementing a policy to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military, a move that several of the Service chiefs opposed. That policy change may go smoothly -- or it may not. Battlefield reverses in Afghanistan and indecisiveness in Libya could fuel further tensions. And Panetta will have as partners a number of new military leaders, to include a new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

All in all, Panetta has his work cut out for him. We should all wish him luck.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images