Shadow Government

Four political risks in marking the end of this phase in the Iraq saga

The New York Times reports that the White House is putting the final touches on a roll-out plan to mark the end of this phase of the Iraq saga.

Apparently, the White House views this as an opportunity to score some political points and, properly managed, it probably will redound to the president's political benefit, at least in the short run. But as I am quoted as saying in the piece, it is not without political risks. Whether the roll-out is a political plus next year may depend in part on how well the White House manages four key risks.

Risk 1: The danger of a disconnect between the present image and the future reality.

President Obama has repeatedly said that he has brought the Iraq war to a responsible close. Just how responsible a close it is depends on whether Iraq a year from now scores about as well on the following scale as it scores now: united, stable, peaceful, secure, democratic government that is an ally in the war on terror. Of course, we would like to see Iraq score even higher on all of those criteria, but from the point of view of the 2012 election, Obama will be doing well if Iraq does not backslide significantly on any one. While the White House arranges for a bunch of triumphant photo ops in the coming weeks, they would be well-served to remember that events on the ground in Iraq have a way of turning memorable moments from a short-term plus to a long-term negative.

Risk 2: The danger of a disconnect between the present image and the past record.

Candidate Obama talked to the American people about Iraq quite a bit. President Obama has talked about Iraq hardly at all. If what I have heard about the White House plans is correct, the President may do more high-profile, high impact Iraq messaging in the next three weeks than in the past three years combined. If the message pivot is too glaring, it will raise awkward comparisons. It may even raise unwelcome questions about Afghanistan, an ongoing war where the flagging public support might benefit from a bit more persuader-in-chief attention.

Risk 3: The danger of a disconnect between the way the president talks about the mission the troops completed and the way the troops themselves talk about it.

This administration has a strong record of promoting military issues when they can be presented in the "military as victim" frame. Thus, President Obama is quite eloquent and compelling when he talks about health care for wounded vets, keeping our promise to help vets adjust to post-combat civilian life, honoring the sacrifices of loved ones of fallen soldiers, and so on. These are important and legitimate issues to talk about, and given the high human costs of the Iraq war, it is an entirely appropriate lens through which to view the matter. But it is not the only appropriate lens, and at a time like this, it is also important to use another frame that is also fitting: the military as heroes who have accomplished something extraordinary. At tremendous cost, the military liberated Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and helped the Iraq people forge a new path forward. There were countless acts of heroism along the way and this new transition moment is a fit time to herald that heroism. If President Obama can talk about what the troops accomplish in a way that resonates with their own understanding, he will make an important contribution to civil-military relations. If he can not, then there are corresponding political risks.

Risk 4: The danger of a disconnect between partisan incentives and statesman responsibilities, especially as they touch on the previous administration and the president's own political base.

One delicate political task confronting the White House as it plans the Iraq-related ceremonies concerns what to do and say about President Bush. The President's base wants to hear from candidate Obama, to hear all of the partisan rhetoric about "stupid wars." The rest of the country, including key swing voters, probably would prefer to hear from head of state Obama, one that adopts a more elevated tone. The media will surely draw attention to President Bush, whether or not he is present at any ceremony, so the question will be put, figuratively if not literally: how does President Obama fit President Bush into the Iraq narrative? From a narrow political perspective, it will be a very tricky matter to talk (or not talk) about Bush in a way that does not annoy either his base or the rest of the country.

None of these risks is unmanageable. A deft political operation should be able to mitigate them, if they are wise enough to recognize them.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Russian Spring?

The numbers are still lopsided: tens of thousands of riot police  against hundreds of opposition protestors. The latter are organizing via social networks and plan a demonstration in the thousands on Saturday across Russia. Vladimir Putin faces demonstrations increasing in determination and anger as international criticism mounts. What set it off is the disputed Russian Duma elections in which Putin's United Russia party claims to have barely won a majority.

That such protests even exist and are growing is an encouraging sign for Russia democracy watchers. The shattering of the myth of "stable" authoritarianism has come to Putin's new czarist state.

Many of us had all but given up hope that Russian democrats were bold enough and of sufficient numbers to attempt to reclaim freedom . Now we have media reports abounding and with pictures and video of Russians chanting "Russia without Putin" and other anti-regime and pro-democracy slogans.

Having jailed as much of the opposition as he thought necessary as well as controlling the media and the electoral machinery, Putin seemed to assume over the last couple of years that his plan to let his hand-picked President Medvedev spell him for a term in the Kremlin while Putin served as prime minister was succeeding. He even counted on wowing Russians with shirtless horse-rides and exotic hunts for dangerous animals. What he seems not to have counted on is that it is hard to kill a democracy movement so easily in a country connected to the internet, Facebook, and Twitter, and one with large numbers of citizens regularly interacting with the West. He seems not to have calculated that there would be an Arab Spring and his democratic countrymen would take courage from it. I confess to having been rather doubtful myself that there could be a second Russian democratic awakening.

But in the last several weeks, as Putin was getting less and less affirmation from Russians for the figure he was trying to cut on the stage of Russian politics -- he was booed vigorously at a recent martial arts expo -- it became clear that Russians care more about the sad decline of the economy that United Russia has presided over than his theatrics. They care more about justice and rights and good governance than the stability Putin promised (threatened?) through the "managed democracy" he said they preferred. They have this in common with a lot of people in the world, from Caracas to Tehran, from Cairo to Lusaka.

Witness Putin's being able to barely take 50 percent of the seats in the Duma and that was probably accomplished with a good dose of electoral fraud. It must be particularly irritating for Putin to have both Secretary of State Clinton and Gorbachev teaming up on him. She has called for a full investigation of the electoral fraud charges; Gorbachev is increasing his denunciations of Putin's tenure and calling for new elections. Putin has reacted by blaming the U.S. for inciting the protests. While Putin will very likely stay in control because there are enough parties for sale in the Duma to make a substantial majority, nevertheless, the bloom is off the rose.

Liberal Russians are reinvigorated and taking to the streets. They are now facing off against all those who have been bought off by the United Russia machine-not just the government through its interior ministry and police forces, but also all those whose material well-being is afforded by allying themselves with the regime; Putin's cadres are out in the streets to show support for the regime.

We cannot yet know how this will turn out: will brute force once again cow the demonstrators? Will this unrest lead to an investigation and admission of fraud? Or, might it possibly lead to his own failure to win the presidential election next year, or at least his having to steal it in such a way that it cannot be plausibly hidden?

There is precedent: the Soviet police state apparatus failed to uphold the Communist Party's interests in 1990-1991, leading to the downfall of Gorbachev and the rise of a more liberal if chaotic order under Yeltsin. It is too soon to know if such a thing could happen again, but given how many of the corrupt and authoritarian regimes the world over have fallen or are tottering today, Putin is likely to take no chances. We should expect prolonged disorder and violence if the protestors are determined for the long haul this time.

What should U.S. policy be? First, let's be done with "reset" policies and take a lesson: pretending that authoritarians are democrats is not only a waste of time, it is to be on the wrong side of history. The Obama administration should see the regime for what it is and treat it and the Russian citizenry as what they are: a corrupt dictatorship hanging on to power by force and fraud leveled against a people who demand to be treated as citizens, not slaves. Who knows how numerous the opposition is, but the elections reveal it is no longer a handful of people.

Irving Kristol wrote over twenty years ago at the dawn of the new Russia that while the Russian people might never clamor for a full U.S.-style democracy, now that they have the vote, they will demand that it and the rule of law be respected.

We should be on their side, the right side of history, and help move history by encouraging the good guys and supporting them in material ways as we have before in our long history of being the last best hope of freedom for mankind.