Shadow Government

Is it time for a fresh look at Obama's Iraq strategy?

Fred and Kim Kagan have an important article on Iraq that should be required reading of everyone covering foreign policy in this presidential campaign season. Their bottom line: "Far from being a success, then, American policy in Iraq has created an extraordinarily dangerous situation over which we have almost no influence."

The Kagans have earned the right to a respectful hearing on Iraq. They were some of the earliest critics of the way the post-conflict stabilization phase of the Iraq war unfolded, and they were some of the most persuasive and early advocates of the surge strategy President Bush shifted to in 2007.  

Just as their earlier position on the surge went from iconoclastic to conventional wisdom over the course of several years -- so much so that even the Obama team, which tried very hard to thwart the surge from the outside, ended up acknowledging the surge's success in the end -- I suspect their current position may one day become the conventional wisdom: that Obama failed to lock in the gains of the surge and left Iraq in worse shape than might otherwise have been achievable.

The Kagans' argument reminded me very much of a similar moment during Bush's tenure, when we were trying to figure out whether our strategy was adequate or whether a shift to something new was required. Before we could figure out what changes were needed, we had to figure out that change was needed. This may seem obvious in retrospect, but it is not obvious in the moment when there are multiple indicators and trade-offs. The Bush administration reached that point over the course of 2006, and a key step in the process was identifying each of the assumptions behind the then-prevailing strategy and evaluating them with fresh eyes.

Obama's Iraq strategy may well have reached a similar point, but I wonder if anyone inside is doing that kind of painful self-scrutiny. If not, the Kagans have given them a head start.

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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.