Shadow Government

Jimmy Carter blesses Venezuelan election as fear of violence grows

Jimmy Carter's capacity to astound continues to know no bounds. Last Friday, presiding over an event at his eponymous organization, the former president allowed how Hugo Chávez's election process in Venezuela is "the best in the world."

Well, apparently he isn't reading much on the run up to Venezuela's October 7 presidential election, because such an affirmation flies in the face of nearly every report in recent weeks, which have overwhelmingly concluded it has been a fundamentally unfair process. (A few examples are here, here, and here.)

To be charitable, Carter may have been referring to the technical procedures on election day to guard against fraud, but, still, that is more a testament to the skill of the Chávez-dominated Venezuelan electoral council in convincing credulous foreign visitors on the supposed integrity of their system. In any case, focusing on voting machines on election day is missing the forest for the trees.

From stacking the electoral council with his loyalists, to his near-monopoly control of the broadcasting media, to his non-transparent spending of Venezuela's record oil profits for political purposes, to intimidating voters with the public exposure their votes, Chávez has used every tactic, above-board and underhanded, to smother the candidacy of former governor Henrique Capriles. It is a measure of Capriles' tenacity that not only is he still standing, but that he is giving Chávez all he can handle.

Yet, while Capriles's surging candidacy certainly bodes well for the preservation of some semblance of democracy in Venezuela (not to mention the prospects of a Chávez-less Venezuela), it is also heightening concerns that should Chávez come to believe he is losing on election day, he will unleash a wave of violence targeting the opposition.

In a recent 2,400-word exposé, Reuters reported on what are known in Venezuela as "colectivos," radical (and armed) neighborhood groups committed to outwardly defending Chávez's political project. They are unaccountable to any authority, acting above the law and with impunity. According to Reuters,

"In the eyes of critics, the groups are bandana-clad killers and vigilantes, the shock troops of the president's self-styled revolution. They have become more high-profile in the last four years, and some have been blamed for attacks on people they are said to perceive as enemies of Chavez.

"With a presidential election looming on October 7, opposition members fear the colectivos will turn to violence if challenger Henrique Capriles defies the polls and wins."

Moreover, in a second recent report, the Spanish newspaper ABC ran a front-page story -- ironically, published the day after Jimmy Carter's sanguine comments -- based on internal government documents revealing plans for even more select units of civilian "rapid mobilization networks" to be deployed on election day. According to ABC, these specially trained units -- expressly civilian to give the government plausible deniability in the event of lethal action - are tasked with "aborting opposition rallies before these can take shape, 'detection of opposition leaders, organization of street protests and resistance, and territorial control."

Civil society leaders have been sufficiently alarmed by these reports to write a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon apprising him of growing tensions in the country due to Chávez's inflammatory rhetoric promising "civil war" if he does not win. It also requested that member states express their concerns to the Chávez government and be vigilant that their election comports with international standards. Now, it is unlikely that any will express their concerns to Hugo Chávez, but the Obama administration does not have to remain silent. Yes, it has avoided microphone diplomacy with the Venezuelan caudillo, just as the Bush administration did. But there is an important difference: The Bush administration did indeed speak out when it concerned matters of high principle. This is such an occasion. Jimmy Carter may have gotten it wrong, as he is wont to do, but there is no reason President Obama has to get it wrong as well.

ANDREW ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

If Obama's foreign policy has been so successful, then why are we talking about Romney's advisors?

Prior to the terrorist attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the subsequent anti-U.S. demonstrations throughout the Muslim world, the conventional wisdom held that President Obama was unassailable on foreign policy during the election campaign. Yet rather than tout the administration's successes -- which have produced an edge in polls as to who the public trusts on foreign affairs -- the Obama campaign and its allies seem more eager to warn voters that Mitt Romney is planning to bring back George W. Bush's foreign policy than tout the president's "successes." "Of Romney's 24 special advisors on foreign policy, 17 served in the Bush-Cheney administration," wrote Adam Smith, the most senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee -- and that's "a frightening prospect." Similarly, during the Democratic convention, Senator John Kerry said: "[Romney] has all these [neoconservative] advisers who know all the wrong things about foreign policy. He would rely on them." Now, noted foreign policy scholar Maureen Dowd has written not one, but TWO columns decrying "neocon" influence over Romney's foreign policy.

This is an especially odd line of attack given that most of the Obama administration's foreign policy achievements are little more than extensions of Bush administration policies.

President Obama frequently boasts that he fulfilled his promise to "end the war" in Iraq. In reality, he merely adhered to the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement negotiated and signed by the Bush administration in 2008. What's more, as a senator Mr. Obama opposed the 2007 surge of U.S. forces that made this agreement possible. The Obama administration's only policy innovation on Iraq was last year's failure to broker a new strategic framework agreement with Iraq, a deal they had previously insisted was necessary and achievable.

Then there's the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. To be sure, the president deserves credit for launching the raid against the advice of so many of his advisors, including Vice President Joe Biden. But Mr. Obama fails to acknowledge that the intelligence chain that led to the Abbottabad raid began with detainee interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and CIA "black" sites that he vowed to close upon taking office.

What about drones? President Obama deserves credit for the successful "drone war" against al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, but the uptick in U.S. drone attacks there began in July 2008. The Obama administration's continuation of this policy is an acknowledgment -- unspoken, of course -- that the Bush administration was correct to treat the war on terror as an actual war rather than a global law-enforcement campaign.

On Iran, President Obama brags that "Iran is under greater pressure than ever before, "and "few thought that sanctions could have an immediate bite on the Iranian regime." Putting aside the fact that these sanctions were imposed upon the president by a 100-0 Senate vote, and that Obama's State Department has granted exemptions to all 20 of Iran's major oil-trading partners, this triumphalism ignores that the Bush administration worked for years to build multilateral support for sanctions (both at the United Nations and in national capitals). The Obama administration broke from this effort for two years, attempting instead to engage the Iranian leadership. When this outreach predictably failed, the Obama administration claimed that Tehran had proven itself irrevocably committed to its nuclear program -- precisely the conclusion the Bush administration had reached years earlier.

Yes, there's more to the Obama administration's foreign-policy case, but the other "achievements" are muddled ones. Even before the Benghazi attack, post-Qaddafi Libya was so insecure that the State Department issued a travel advisory warning U.S. citizens against "all but essential travel to Libya," and NATO's intervention in Libya raised the inconvenient question of why the administration intervened to alleviate a "medieval siege" on Benghazi but sits silently as tens of thousands of civilians are slaughtered in Syria.

In Afghanistan, the surge ordered by President Obama in December 2009 had the operational effect intended. But even in taking this step, the president undermined the policy by rejecting his military commander's request for 40,000 troops, declaring the surge would end according to a fixed timeline rather than conditions on the ground, and announcing the withdrawal of the last 20,000 surge forces before the Afghan fighting season ended (but before the November election). The Bush administration veterans advising Governor Romney surely know more about the importance of seeing a policy through to its fruition.

The Bush administration made many foreign policy mistakes during its eight years in office, most notably the conduct of the Iraq War after the fall of Baghdad. And Governor Romney still needs to provide details demonstrating why he would be a better steward of U.S. national security than President Obama. But the potential devolution of the Arab Spring into anti-U.S. violence demonstrates why both candidates owe the American people a serious discussion about foreign and defense policy. Hopefully in the election campaign's waning weeks the Democrats will offer much more than the ad hominen anti-Bush attacks they have provided to date.

Benjamin Runkle served in the Department of Defense and National Security Council during the Bush administration, and is author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden.

Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images