Shadow Government

Will we stay or will we go?

Vice President Biden's closed-door pep rally with congressional Democrats has come in for some well-deserved criticism for the way the participants demonized political opponents with vicious labels.

But I just read something that makes me wonder whether the real news from the pep rally got lost by the distraction of the rhetorical fireworks. According to Joshua Green at the Atlantic, Vice President Biden effectively told Rep. Barney Frank not to put much stock in the media coverage about negotiations between Iraq and the United States over a longer-term American presence in Iraq. Here is how Frank relayed the conversation to the reporter:

One other big story from [the caucus meeting] today, Biden was at the caucus, and I said I was upset about Afghanistan and Iraq. So Jack Lew says, "Well, we're winding them down." I said, "What do you mean, you're winding them down? I read Panetta saying that he's begging the Iraqis to ask us to stay." At which point Biden asserted himself and said -- there's clearly been a dispute between them within the administration -- "Wait a minute, I'm in charge of that negotiation, not Panetta, and we have given the Iraqis a deadline to ask us, and it is tomorrow, and they can't possibly meet it because of all these things they would have to do. So we are definitely pulling out of Iraq at the end of the year." That was very good news for me. That's a big deal. I said, "Yeah, but what if they ask you for an extension?" He said, "We are getting out. Tomorrow, it's over."

By late Tuesday, the Iraqis did sort of meet the deadline, so Biden's claim that "it's over" may have been premature. Hence, this report today in the Post: "U.S. officials on Wednesday welcomed Iraq's decision to negotiate with Washington on keeping some U.S. troops in the country into next year, seeing it as a move toward ending the months-long political stalemate that has complicated U.S. plans for a December withdrawal."

I find today's story far more comforting than the earlier account of the Biden-Frank exchange. The Post is describing an administration that is still committed to negotiating a relationship with Iraq that offers hope of preserving the fragile and hard-won strategic gains of the surge. The Biden-Frank exchange describes an administration that can only look at Iraq through the lens of an OMB balance sheet -- an administration that thinks "it's over." Perhaps Biden was simply indulging in more hyperbole of the "Republicans-are-terrorists" sort that the Democrats told themselves to soothe their feelings over the bruising debt fight. Or perhaps there was a garble between the reporter, Frank, and Biden. But someone with better access to the White House than I have should press the players in this story for clarification. And perhaps President Obama could identify who in the administration can speak authoritatively on Iraq and what they can authoritatively say about it.


Shadow Government

Administration silent as democracy deteriorates in Ecuador

Even before Hugo Chavez revealed he is battling cancer, his political star was on the wane in Latin America. More and more, voters in the region have simply realized that class warfare, polarization, and centralization of power are not prescriptions for economic growth and political stability. (As a case in point, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, a one-time Chavez acolyte, couldn't run away fast enough from the Venezuelan leader during his recent successful campaign - even if he had no qualms about taking Chavez's cash.)

Still, the fading appeal of the Chavista model is of cold comfort to those still suffering under radical populist rule elsewhere in the region. Specifically, in Ecuador, Rafael Correa continues to trample democratic institutions, although regrettably nowhere to be found is any expression of concern by the Obama administration.

In late July, in a "trial" that lasted less than a day, a cowed Ecuadorean judge sentenced prominent newspaper columnist Emilio Palacio and three of the directors of his newspaper, El Universo, to three years in prison and fined them $40 million for publishing a column critical of Correa last February.

The defendants said they will appeal -- but so did Correa. He says he wants the full $80 million in damages he requested when he filed his defamation suit.

"We're making history, my friends, we won't retreat," he said after the verdict. "There's no room for magnanimity in the face of such miserable humanity."

Even as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and every major international media defense organization denounced the verdict, nary a word of concern has been expressed by the Obama administration.

Intimidating the media and using the judicial system to quash freedom of freedom expression are hallmarks of Chavismo, ones that Correa has embraced with relish. He has sued, fined, and seized control of numerous outlets since his rise to power in 2007. Where the government once owned one media outlet, under Correa it now controls 19 television and radio stations and newspapers.

It gets worse. Last May, Correa won a referendum vote granting him the power to restrict media ownership and to create a government oversight body to regulate "excesses" in the media under threat of sanction.

Moreover, the same referendum gives Correa the right to restructure Ecuador's judicial system by overseeing a commission that will select new judges, compromising the entire integrity and independence of the system. Until then, any presently sitting judge who hopes to have a job in the future is rather unlikely to cross the president - as in, reversing the El Universo verdict on appeal.

Of course, expressions of concern from Washington are unlikely to discourage Correa from his destructive, anti-democratic course (just days ago, he threatened to dissolve Congress and call new elections if his candidate wasn't elected to head the assembly; his candidate won), but they do matter.

Contrary to what most professional leftists in the region want you to believe, most Latin Americans do want good relations with the United States, for a whole range of reasons - economic, family, education, among others - and it registers when those relations are seen to be off-kilter. Struggling democrats, as well, rely on expressions of solidarity from the United States to sustain their courageous efforts.

The sun may be setting on Chavismo in Latin America, but that's no excuse for inaction. Rebuilding democratic institutions will take a lot longer than bringing them down. The Obama administration needs to have a policy of making sure the situation doesn't get worse before it gets better.