Shadow Government

Six reasons why "flexibility" might be a problem

Making foreign policy in a democracy is not easy. On top of the customary challenges of devising and implementing strategy in a complex international system, there are the additional factors of public opinion and the electoral cycle. These burdens vexed George Kennan so much that he came to disdain American democracy and despair of his country even being able to conduct an effective grand strategy. Similar frustrations sometimes beset contemporary commentators such as Tom Friedman, who express envy for China's autocracy and its apparent ease of decision-making.

But as Kennan failed to appreciate, democracy as a system also brings advantages to the making of foreign policy. These include the legitimacy of public opinion, the collective wisdom that can emanate from the body politic, the moral authority of democratic consent, the collective resources offered by participatory government, and the occasional brake on folly that public accountability can impose.

It is in this context that President Obama's recent open-mic embarrassment might be considered. When President Obama's own "oops" moment happened during his meeting with Russian President Medvedev in Seoul, the White House no doubt hoped that it would be nothing more than a one-day news story. Now that a couple of weeks have passed since Obama notoriously told the Russian leadership that he would have more "flexibility" once he was less accountable to the American electorate, the issue doesn't seem to be going away. Past hot-mic slips have been evanescent stories at best, but this one is likely to enter the annals of Obama administration foreign policy infelicities in the same file as "leading from behind," returning the Churchill bust to the UK, and showing the Dalai Lama the back door. The question is why?

In part this is because the White House itself is signaling its intention to make foreign policy a central part of its re-election campaign, which thus brings greater scrutiny on President Obama's foreign policy intentions during a second term. As a campaign tactic this focus is unsurprising, given the Obama administration's weak domestic and economic policy record. (The White House seems to realize this as well, hence the Obama re-election campaign's sheepishness about featuring past priority initiatives such as Obamacare or the failed stimulus package). But there are several other reasons why the "flexibility" remark won't soon be forgotten:

  • It recalls one of Obama's first strategic mistakes. His 2009 decision to back away from commitments to American allies Poland and the Czech Republic while capitulating to Russian demands on ballistic missile defense secured very little in return from Moscow, especially in Russian willingness to pressure Iran on its nuclear program.
  • It highlights another past miscalculation. In asking Medvedev to pass the "flexibility" message on to President-"elect" Putin, Obama inadvertently highlighted the administration's early failed efforts to boost Medvedev as the Russian leader while downplaying Putin's ongoing repression and consolidation of power.
  • It raises more questions. What other types of comments or commitments has President Obama made to foreign leaders that hot microphones didn't pick up? One hopes that the "flexibility" plea is an aberration, and that this president does not see the American people as an obstacle to his foreign policy goals. The Republican presidential nominee will likely be asking this question often for the next several months. [Unsurprising disclosure: I am a supporter of Gov. Romney's presidential campaign].
  • It compares unfavorably with Obama's predecessor. For all of the criticism directed at President George W. Bush during his time in office, foreign leaders and the American people always knew where he stood and did not worry that his public talk conflicted with his private messages. This contrast only further complicates the Obama administration's efforts to blame Bush for their challenges while simultaneously benefiting from his policies. Notwithstanding the cheap shots at Bush by some recent Obama administration officials, the White House continues to follow many Bush national security policies. The White House's continuation of the Bush administration counterterrorism framework and Asia-Pacific strategic alignments has been detailed at length elsewhere. Now the current benefits of bolstered intelligence collection on Iran that Bush launched can be added to the ledger.
  • It reinforces an impression of disregard for many of the American people. Perhaps most irksome about the "flexibility" comment was its implication that President Obama sees the American public as a hindrance. But this is not the first time that he has been caught by a hot microphone disparaging his fellow citizens. Recall, for example, his 2008 comments that some Americans "they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion."
  • It exacerbates concern among American allies and partners about the Obama administration's reliability. Ironically, for all of this White House's campaign rhetoric about improving America's image and "repairing" relations with our allies, the reality is that under Obama our relations with most of our allies and partners on virtually every continent have actually worsened -- yes, worsened -- since the end of the Bush administration. The recent summit with Canada and Mexico barely covered over Canada's acute frustration with Obama for canceling the northern half of Keystone XL and apparently blocking their Trans-Pacific Partnership participation, or Mexico's anger over the thousands of guns flooding their country from the botched "Fast and Furious" operation. In Europe, the neglect felt by Britain and France is now compounded by their worries that the administration will look for an election-year off-ramp from stopping Iran's nuclear program, not to mention doubts about the White House's commitment to ending Assad's rule in Syria. Japan and Australia find the administration's abrupt changes of course in their region disconcerting, and Taiwan questions the White House's commitment to its security. India wonders whether the administration will leave its region even more unstable by focusing on leaving rather than winning in Afghanistan, and also wonders whether President Obama genuinely sees it as a strategic partner. Iraq and Afghanistan represent two cases where the Obama administration has presided over the deterioration in the complex yet functional bilateral relationships it inherited in January 2009. Obama's fraught relationship with Israel speaks for itself. And of course, Central and Eastern Europeans worry that Obama's appeal to the Russians for "flexibility" will come at the expense of America's commitment to their security.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Reich and Vázquez Ger respond to Ambassador Cely

We do not blame Amb. Nathalie Cely for defending her government, for that is an important part of any ambassador's job. But in her efforts, she distorts our article and commits a number of important omissions and distortions.

Amb. Cely says that Ecuador is a peaceful country and by no means supports or facilitates any terrorist activity. First, we never said that the Ecuadoreans are not a peaceful people. We limited ourselves to pointing out just some of the actions of President Rafael Correa that clearly show that he is not a peaceful person, and that his actions, regardless of his intentions, have made Ecuador into a more dangerous place and a threat to United States' foreign policy objectives, including abetting terrorism.

For example, President Correa has this week announced that he -- and to this date he alone among the western hemisphere's elected heads of state -- will boycott the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, a regular meeting of the freely-elected presidents of western hemisphere nations. Correa cites one reason only for avoiding the meeting: The fact that the 53-year old totalitarian dictatorship of the Castro brothers in Cuba has been excluded from the meeting. Cuba has never been invited because its government is not a democracy, as required by the Summit's rules.

In other words, Rafael Correa considers it more important to express solidarity with an unelected, one-party police state (the only legal party being the Communist Party of Cuba), than with the leaders of all the other nations of the hemisphere, who have confirmed their attendance at the Summit. Moreover, Cuba is on the list of the U.S. State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism. Thus, the leader of the peaceful Ecuadorean people clearly values his friendship with two bloodthirsty tyrants, the Castro brothers, who set up training camps for terrorists that committed atrocities in every country of this hemisphere for about 30 years, until their paymaster, the Soviet Union, ceased to exist. Apparently Correa does not care about the thousands of Cubans who have been executed by the Castros for the sole reason of wanting a peaceful, inclusive, free, and democratic Cuba.

Moreover, we don't think that the actions and links that President Correa and his administration have established with countries such as Iran can be considered peaceful. In a previous letter to the editor published in the Miami Herald in response to our op-ed "Iran's Stealth Financial Partners in Latin America", Amb. Cely said: "The items Ecuador trades with Iran, mostly bananas and flowers, are not subject to the sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union."

That statement is refuted by the words of her own colleague, the president of the state-owned oil company Petroecuador, Mario Calvopiña, who a few days ago stated: "I understand that those who must comply with the [Iran] sanctions are U.S. companies or companies with American capital and American citizens, but we are a company that has nothing to do with the U.S. government," adding that in June "an Iranian delegation is coming to Ecuador to discuss their possible participation in the construction of the Pacific Refinery, a project that will cost $12 billion and in which PDVSA [a state-owned Venezuelan oil company] is a minority partner. Iranians have expressed an initial interest in participating."

Again, Correa apparently does not know or does not care about the destruction of democracy in Iran by the Ayatollahs and the Ahmadinejad dictatorship. Nor does he consider the fact that Iran's support for terrorism is one of the reasons why Iran is being isolated not only by the U.S., but also by the European Union. Oil is in fact very high on the sanctions list.

Moreover, if Amb. Cely is correct that Correa's Ecuador is peaceful and inclusive and only sells "bananas and flowers" to Iran, then why do delegations of high-ranking members of the government, including the president of the Central Bank, Pedro Delgado, travel so frequently to Iran? Why did the Italian police find an Ecuadorian diplomatic pouch in Milan containing 40 kg of cocaine, arresting an Ecuadorean citizen linked to the president of Ecuador's Central Bank and to the sister of President Correa? Why does the GOE continue to undermine well-respected organizations such as the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights and the non-profit organization Human Rights Watch in their investigations of human rights violations in Ecuador? Why does President Correa try by any mean to destroy the independent press in his country, as demonstrated by his efforts to bankrupt newspapers such as El Universo, and persecution of journalists Emilio Palacio, Christian Zurita, and Juan Carlos Calderón? Why did  Correa expel the American ambassador last year only because Wikileaks publicized a U.S. Embassy cable that proved corruption in the president's inner circle?

Here are two documents that show Ecuador's cooperation with Iran:

  • The Central Bank Confidential reports regarding agreements with Iranian bank EBDI. 
  • The trade agreement Ecuador signed with Iran on 2011.

We respectfully suggest that Ambassador Cely familiarize herself with the range of anti-American, anti-democratic, and pro-Iranian actions by her president before prematurely coming to his defense.

Otto J. Reich is president of the consulting firm Otto Reich & Associates LLC. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Twitter: @ottoreich

Ezequiel Vázquez Ger is an associate at Otto Reich Associates LLC and collaborates with the non-profit organization The Americas Forum. Twitter: @ezequielvazquez