Shadow Government

On Libya, losing time, and listening for divine footsteps

On Friday the Obama administration at last announced that the United States will now recognize the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of Libya. This was the right thing to do. It helps make available an estimated $30 billion in frozen assets for the Libyan rebels, and will help bolster international support for the TNC and further isolate the outlaw Qaddafi. Many questions remain on implementation, as Josh Rogin notes, but even these implementation issues illustrate how diplomatic recognition bears important substance as well as symbolism.

While recognition was a welcome move, it was also much belated. The United States could have done it as long as four months ago when France first led the way, when recognition arguably would have had more impact in decisively shifting momentum against Qaddafi. Instead of leading the multinational coalition, the United States is once again following (insert the obligatory "leading from behind" crack here). Now, as this Wall Street Journal editorial points out, the United States is the 27th nation to recognize the Libyan rebels, in the footsteps of countries such as Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Italy, Australia, and Spain. Even Luxembourg did it ahead of us.

Wise and effective statecraft depends much on developing the right policies. But statecraft also depends on a less appreciated factor, and that is timing. It is not always enough to do the right thing, but to do the right thing at the right time. In other words, in foreign policy it is not just what you do, but when you do it.

Here a continuing puzzle of this Administration is its sense of timing. Previously as a political candidate, Obama displayed an appreciation for timing that was both acute and artful. He discerned the political gestalt, and capitalized on it in a way that catapulted an otherwise previously obscure law professor and state legislator first into the U.S. Senate and then almost immediately into the White House.

Yet somewhere along the way, in the transition from campaigning to governing, the Obama White House forgot to sync its clock. This was manifest in domestic and economic policy with the mistaken investment of political capital in the health care bill rather than a jobs agenda. On foreign policy, the administration's deficiencies have been most pronounced as miscast timing. In fact, as in the case of Libya, the Administration often arrives at a sound policy -- yet only when it is too late to be a game-changer. So also with Iran, when the White House sat passively on the sidelines during the 2009 Green Movement protests, only to belatedly offer public presidential support for the Iranian reformers two years later and after the regime had squelched the leading dissidents. Or Syria, where the administration stuck dogmatically to its public posture of hope that Assad would reform, while his henchman locked up, tortured, and killed the opposition.

Poor timing is not just a matter of misreading history and arriving late, but it can also mean mistaken sequencing and taking certain steps too soon. For example, many of the Administration's much-hyped "outreach" efforts in its first year to regimes like Iran, China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Burma, were flawed diplomatic gestures in part because they came before the White House had first taken needful steps such as reassuring U.S. allies, and asserting American strength and resolve towards the regimes in question. Taking those steps first would have generated more respect for the White House's gestures and created more fruitful conditions for eventual diplomatic outreach. Or consider the administration's clumsy treatment of Israel. Whatever one may think of the White House's various pressure gambits with the Israeli government -- such as publicly demanding a settlement freeze, or unilaterally calling for the 1967 borders framework as a precondition for negotiations -- a big reason why these steps failed (besides their dubious merit) is because they came before the White House had established a framework of trust with the Israeli leadership and made clear its firm commitment to Israel's security. Not to mention the lack of a Palestinian leadership able and willing to deliver as a negotiating partner. Timing problems can also come from listening to the wrong clock, as seems to be the case with the administration's recent decision-making on Afghanistan, shaped more by the 2012 electoral timetable rather than the military's assessment of the security clock.

None of this is easy. Reading time and the course of history is notoriously elusive, but it is essential to the best statecraft. Bismarck famously observed, "a statesman cannot create anything himself. He must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment." As the White House wrestles with a full agenda of vexing challenges, perhaps it should start listening a little harder for divine footsteps.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Preparing for a post-Hugo Venezuela

With drips and drabs of information, Hugo Chávez is slowly informing the world that he is seriously ill. After finally admitting he has cancer, this week he said he may be undergoing either chemotherapy or radiation treatment over the next few months.

While still unknown is what type of cancer he has or the prognosis, it seems safe to assume that his medical condition will certainly impair his ability to continue governing Venezuela as before.

Indeed, all indications are he is huddling today with his Cuban advisors to lay the groundwork for a succession to ensure the survival of Chavismo without its loquacious founder.

Vice President Elias Jaua, a Chávez (and Fidel Castro) loyalist, is officially next in line of succession, but he is a colorless apparatchik whom no one considers to be the long-term answer. Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, another slavish Chávez acolyte, is similarly not seen as a viable replacement.

Defense Minister Gen. Henry Rangel Silva and military intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal, two powerful figures lurking in the shadows, are Chavistas to the core, but both have been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for facilitating narcotics trafficking through Venezuela, disqualifying either from post-Hugo political office. Still, they have the power to make or break Hugo's successor -- and they definitely have the will, given their vulnerability to U.S. legal action if the wrong person replaces Hugo.

Also circling about is an ambitious but corrupt cohort of former government officials that includes national assemblyman Diosdado Cabello (a former vice president), José Vicente Rangel (a former Vice President), and Jesse Chacón (a former minister of the presidency). They are crafty and formidable operators, but their conspicuous venality, and their untrustworthiness as deemed by the Cubans because of their independent thinking, make them non-starters. They nevertheless should be watched. 

Thus, the only one who appears to have the best chance of keeping this motley collection of thuggish characters in check and carrying on Chavismo without Hugo is his older brother Adán .

Adán Chávez, 15 months Hugo's senior, is no stranger to radical left-wing politics. As far back as the early 1980s, he was involved in conspiracies to overthrow the Venezuelan government. Fervently Marxist and pro-Castro, he has served as education minister and ambassador to Cuba and currently serves as governor of Barinas state. He is known as an ideologue through and through.

According to a Wikileaks cable, Chávez confides in only two people: Adán and Fidel Castro.

In late June, Adán made international headlines when he told government supporters that, while they prefer to maintain power through the ballot box, they should not rule out armed struggle if the need arises.

The benediction of Adán already seems to be underway. During Hugo's mysterious stay in Cuba (undergoing surgery), officials floundered about trying to explain Hugo's absence. It was Adán who appeared to be the best informed about what was going on. Also, when Hugo returned to Venezuela, Adán was the only other political figure to appear with him on the balcony of the presidential palace to greet his supporters.

Adán 's problem is that he lacks charisma like the others, but his all-important bloodlines will likely trump that deficiency (much like the dour Raúl has become the titular leader of the decrepit Castro regime in Cuba). The Cubans will make sure of that.

Moreover, also backing Adán will be a rogues' gallery of international stakeholders that have profited immensely from Chávez's largesse. They will also be pushing not only for maintaining the status quo, but the continuation of Chavismo through the 2012 elections. In addition to Cuba, these also include Russia, China, and Iran (including Hezbollah).

What this means for the Venezuelan opposition and U.S. interests will be the subject of future blogs, but, for now, all eyes should be on the political machinations in Caracas that will determine Chavismo's foreseeable future.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)