Shadow Government

The OAS punts on Venezuela

A remarkable thing almost happened in Washington this past week. The Organization of American States nearly became relevant to the ongoing political turmoil in Venezuela following Hugo Chávez's missed inauguration. Alas, it was not to be -- as apparently the only thing that stirs Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, a Chilean socialist, to action is when fellow leftists are removed from power for their abuses (see Honduras, 2007).

Indeed, making matters worse, the diplomat who tried to rouse the organization on Venezuela wound up getting fired by his government for his temerity.

Panamanian representative to the OAS Guillermo Cochez took to the floor last week to criticize Insulza's supine reaction to recent events in Venezuela, including the decision of the Chávez-packed Supreme Court to overrule their constitution and delay the president's swearing-in for his new term in office, since no one has seen or heard from Chávez in more than a month. (He is believed to be in Cuba, convalescing from a reported fourth cancer surgery. Nominally in charge, but resting on no constitutional basis, is Chávez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro.)

Citing the lack of transparency on Chávez's health and lack of independent institutions in the country, Cochez called Venezuela "a sick democracy." He said that if the OAS was not going to be concerned about whether events there were in compliance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter (to which Venezuela is a signatory), then the organization ought to be shut down.

Predictably, the Venezuelan representative responded with vitriol, calling Cochez's remarks "an aggression" and insulting him as mentally unstable and "a jerk."

The session was quickly adjourned, as no one witnessing wanted to be further splattered by typical chavista mud-slinging, although not before the Canadian envoy suggested sending an OAS delegation to Venezuela to evaluate the situation.

The U.S. response to the spectacle was hardly inspiring. The U.S. representative said that the U.S. "will not interpret the constitution of Venezuela," which is up to "the people of Venezuela." That certainly stands in stark contrast to the Honduran presidential crisis of 2007, where the U.S. did precisely just that. And, frankly, how the Venezuelan opposition is supposed to make its voice heard when all governing institutions have been gutted and packed with chavistas is not clear. In any case, no one is expecting the U.S. to be the lone voice of criticism, but the alternative requires some diplomatic heavy-lifting in getting other countries to speak out. But, to date, precious little is evident.

Unfortunately, for his troubles in trying to do the right thing, Ambassador Cochez was summarily dismissed from his position and his comments were disavowed. According to a statement from the Panamanian government (whose president once touted himself as the "anti-Chávez), "Panama reiterates that it will continue to respect the internal political processes of states, and, in the case of Venezuela, we are praying for the quick recovery of President Hugo Chávez."

It is doubly unfortunate that the OAS secretary general position is not open until 2015, because Ambassador Cochez exhibits just the qualities you would want in an OAS secretary general.

As for the current occupier of the position, his tenure can be pretty much summed up in a separate interview with the Miami Herald. Asked about the ludicrous situation in which another regional organization, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) -- which purposefully excludes the U.S. and Canada and lists fortifying democracy as a goal -- would be soon turning over its leadership to Cuban dictator Raul Castro, Insulza responded, "The fact that the president of Chile, who is by no means precisely a leftist, hands over CELAC to Raúl Castro shows a new climate of tolerance and understanding in Latin America."

There you have it: an inability to make a distinction between a democratically elected, right-of-center businessman and a left-wing military dictator who shot his way into power fifty years ago and continues to rule through the barrel of a gun. Yes, Mr. Insulza, it does show how far your Latin America has come. Not very.

JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

What Mali reveals

As I write this, the news is still fragmentary and unfolding concerning the Algerian hostage situation following France's military intervention in Mali and effort to arrest the territorial gains made by the jihadists. However this latest crisis plays out, events thus far seem to expose several of the Obama administration's strategic deficiencies, including:

Premature declaration of victory over al Qaeda. As if we needed yet another reminder, the White House's past declarations of looming victory against "core al Qaeda" were woefully premature. This is most costly not as a public relations blunder but as a strategic blunder; when an administration's leadership signals a change in strategic priorities, the rest of the national security apparatus shifts accordingly. Such a premature spiking of the ball seems to have influenced the administration's mishandling of the Benghazi consulate attack, and now seems to have caused a corresponding neglect of Mali. Yet Mali may be emerging as just the latest front in the war, as Peter Chilson points out the bracing fact that "Northern Mali is currently the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world."

The shifting fissures and fusions of various jihadist groups, a kaleidoscopic combination of local grievances and global aspirations, should not obscure that in the minds of the terrorists there is in part an international and universal dimension to their campaign. Terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar's reported demand that the U.S. release the "blind sheikh" Omar Abdel-Rahman, imprisoned for his role in masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is just one example of their grievances towards America. Whether or not the al Qaeda branch in northern Mali is ever able to stage an attack against the continental United States, its hostage operation against the Algerian gas field installation shows a capability and willingness to target U.S. interests and allies (such as the French, British, and Japanese employees). That alone should justify a more vigorous American response than the Obama administration has thus far marshaled.

Leading from behind. An Obama administration official first proudly described the White House's multilateral strategy as "leading from behind" in the context of the Libya intervention. What might have sounded good then does not sound so good now, as unfortunately the Mali chaos emanates directly from the Libya spillover, and the corresponding failure to engage in an effective post-conflict stabilization operation. Now the latest chapter of "leading from behind" has the French intervening in Mali while the U.S. sits on the sidelines. This has the effect of further annoying important NATO allies while ceding leverage and initiative to the jihadists. The U.S. admittedly has limited resources and bandwidth to bring to bear here, so I am not making the simplistic argument that an earlier full-scale American intervention would have been easy or solved the problems besetting Mali. But while the downsides of excessive involvement are well-known, the ongoing crisis shows in turn the downsides of dogmatic passivity.

Anemic religious freedom policy. Six months ago I wrote about Mali and made the point that violations of religious freedom are often a leading indicator of a looming security threat (an argument later elaborated here). As I said at the time:

"One worrisome indicator is the jihadists' destruction of traditional Muslim burial grounds and other iconic sites, a sign of the vicious religious intolerance that militant Islamists show towards other Muslims, let alone believers in non-Islamic faiths ... This campaign of religious intolerance may be an early warning indicator of a looming security threat, particularly if northern Mali becomes a terrorist safe-haven and magnet for jihadists planning attacks on the West ... at a minimum, American counterterrorism and religious-freedom policymakers should be watching Mali closely, and talking to each other. In the case of Mali, their concerns may be more aligned then they realize."

Unfortunately the Mali situation is just the latest indicator that the Obama administration still has not made religious freedom policy a priority, either as a value in its own right or as a strategic interest. From that time six months ago, conditions only worsened in Mali as the jihadists began imposing their perverse version of Islamic law. If the Obama administration had been paying more attention to religious liberty deteriorations, it would not have been as surprised at Mali's perilous straits.

FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images