Shadow Government

Can Obama claim we're leaving Iraq more responsibly than we entered?

In an earlier post, I raised the possibility that Obama may not live up to his campaign promise to leave Iraq more responsibly than we entered it. I am hardly alone in wondering about this, but I haven't seen many attempts to document the ways that the exit is resembling the entry.

A few caveats are worth mentioning up front. The exit is still a work in progress and so there is plenty of time for things to go better (or worse) than might be forecasted now. Any judgment I or anyone else makes on the subject is provisional at best. Moreover, most of the critiques of the entry into Iraq owe more to partisan (or academic) mythology than to actual fact. But they have wide currency -- indeed, in some quarters, they are accepted as self-evident truths -- and so it is worth investigating the extent to which they might apply to the exit.

One of the earliest entry critiques was the charge that President George W. Bush hurried up the confrontation with Iraq in 2002 so as to distract from economic scandals and thus score an electoral advantage in the midterm elections. This allegation was made at the time by two people who later became high-level White House officials in the current administration. First, current WH spokesman Jay Carney, then a reporter for Time, raised the possibility that Karl Rove was orchestrating the Iraq timetable for political advantage. The second j'accuse was even more famous, Illinois State Senator Obama's speech explaining why he opposed the Iraq war. Prominent in his speech was this remarkable accusation:

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Roves to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income -- to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

At a time when the economy is suffering from some of the worst years since the Great Depression, the echo is unmistakable, and many critics believe that the Iraq decision was dictated by the 2012 election calendar. President Obama would have a hard time getting reelected based on the awful domestic conditions, but a campaign based on "ending the wars" might resonate with voters. The administration even has a couple of Enrons of their own to fuel the wackier versions of a conspiracy theory.

If you find it plausible that Bush let the difficult economic circumstances and the 2002 electoral calendar shape his approach to entering Iraq, shouldn't you find it more plausible that Obama has let his far more daunting economic troubles and the higher stakes 2012 electoral calendar shape his Iraq exit?

Then there is the charge that President Bush failed to command the process and instead out-sourced his Iraq policy to his Vice-President who spoke triumphantly about the mission but ham-handedly interfered with the delicate diplomacy running up to the confrontation. Well, President Obama adopted an even more hands-off approach to Iraq and formally tapped Vice-President Biden to be in charge of Iraq policy. Biden certainly has been the most triumphalistic) Administration figure about Iraq. And, sure enough, critics have charged that Biden fumbled the account. One of those critics is me, for I am on record worrying that Biden may have stepped on the delicate diplomatic negotiations for a more enduring U.S. military presence back in August.

Shouldn't critics who say that the failure of the UN process in the run-up to the 2003 invasion "proves" that Cheney was really the one calling the shots, and misfiring while doing so, likewise believe that the failure of the renegotiation process in the run-up to the exit "proves" that Biden misfired, too?

Finally, there is the charge that President Bush put in place the wrong team to handle his Iraq policy and these early failures doomed the effort.  Even Secretary Rumsfeld concedes in his memoir that picking Lt.Gen Ricardo Sanchez to head up the military side was a bad choice and Rumsfeld's critique of the civilian head, Ambassador Bremer, is scathing.  The team struggled to work together and to understand the situation in Iraq.  The crucial early period was squandered, sowing the seeds that reaped the bitter fruit of the sectarian violence of 2004-2006. By all accounts, the Bush administration finally got the right personnel in place when the President tapped General Dave Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to implement the new surge strategy and their ability to achieve unity of effort contributed considerably to the surge's success.

The Obama echo is striking.  Midway through his first term, Obama may have finally assembled a solid team with General Ray Odierno and Ambassador Jim Jeffrey.  But he started out with a choice that left many people, including myself, scratching our heads: picking Chris Hill to be the Ambassador.  Ambassador Hill certainly had a distinguished career, but he had no direct experience with Iraq and so was starting from square one.  Sure enough, within months credible reports were circulating about the poor civil-military coordination on the ground.  Perhaps the nadir was the description from one of his former subordinates of Ambassador Hill's alleged wasteful distraction to grow a lush lawn on the embassy compound.  Perhaps the complaints were petty, but the more fundamental charge that the Obama team squandered valuable time that undermined future success rings nonetheless.  

Shouldn't critics who traced the difficulties of the entry to the inability of the Bush team to work together effectively find similar connections between the difficulty of the exit and the troubles inside the Obama team?

ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Cuba's smoke-and-mirror reforms

The Castro regime's announcement that for the first time Cuban citizens will be able to buy and sell their own homes has spurred an outpouring of irrational exuberance that real change is finally coming to the island-prison of Dr. Castro. "To say that it's huge is an understatement," one interested observer told the New York Times. "This is the foundation, this is how you build capitalism, by allowing the free trade of property."

Another told Reuters, "The ability to sell houses means instant capital formation for Cuban families ... It is a big sign of the government letting go." Still another writes in the Christian Science Monitor that these are "incredibly meaningful changes."

Such optimism is ill-founded. In fact, it is indicative only of one of two things: either it betrays a brazen political objective (Time magazine: "Why the U.S. Should Drop the Embargo and Prop Up Cuban Homeowners") or it demonstrates just how low the bar of expectation has been placed for what the Cuban people need and deserve that we must celebrate mere crumbs tossed their way by the Castro dictatorship.

Indeed, sweep away the hype and all you see are daunting hurdles as to how this announcement will change in any way the regime's suffocating control of the Cuban population. The new order restricts people to "ownership" of one permanent residence and one vacation home (as if the average Cuban is in any position to own a second home); all transactions must be approved by the State; no explanation is given on how you grant titles to homes that either have been confiscated from their rightful owners, have been swapped multiple times in the underground economy, or which house multiple families because of the severe shortage of available housing; the construction industry remains state-controlled; and the regime itself admits this order reflects no backsliding on the preeminence of the State in controlling the country's economic and political systems.

Beyond these challenges, however, is the fundamental fact that you cannot conjure private property rights, let alone the free trade in property, out of thin air. Those rights exist only where they are rooted in a credible, impartial, and transparent legal superstructure that can protect one's property, settle disputes, and guarantee transactions against the predations of the State. Anything less is a rigged game where the State is the dealer.

This is how the State Department's annual Human Rights Report characterizes Cuba's judicial system: "While the constitution recognizes the independence of the judiciary, the judiciary is subordinate to the imperatives of the socialist state. The National Assembly appoints all judges and can remove them at any time. Through the National Assembly, the state exerted near-total influence over the courts and their rulings ... Civil courts, like all courts in the country, lack an independent or impartial judiciary as well as effective procedural guarantees."

Translation: Cubans' ability to "own" property, trade, or leverage their property to build capital will continue to exist at the sufferance of the State. And what the State giveth, the State can taketh away. The bottom line is that, ultimately, all Cubans will really own is a piece of paper that says they own something.

Rather than empowering individual Cubans, the regime's goal in allowing the open trade of houses is to hopefully siphon more Cuban American money into the island's perennially bankrupt economy. With average Cubans on the island too poor to buy or improve their dilapidated dwellings, their hope is relatives in Miami and elsewhere will remit even more cash to the island attempting to improve their relations' situation. Indeed, the cynicism of relying on Cuban exiles to support the Cuban economy has never bothered the Castro brothers in the slightest.

The Castro regime recognizes the increasing unrest among the repressed and impoverished Cuban people for fundamental change, but they are capable only of prescribing more painkillers rather than the radical surgery that is needed to restore the nation's health. Pretending to devolve more autonomy in individuals' lives is just one more cruelty inflicted on the Cuban people over five decades of dictatorship, a cruelty made worse by the cheerleading from abroad.

STR/AFP/Getty Images