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Chávez and Leadership of the South American Left

By Taylor Marvin

Agencia Brasil image by Ricardo Stuckert, via Wikimedia

Agencia Brasil image by Ricardo Stuckert, via Wikimedia

Does Hugo Chávez’s death herald the end of Latin America’s resurgent left? Recently Alvaro Vargas Llosa argued in Foreign Policy that Chávez’s passing indeed did — in his de facto leadership role as the dominant personality among South America’s leftist national leaders Chávez was irreplaceable. In Vargas’ telling Chávez’s unique personal charisma and access to Venezuela’s vast oil wealth allowed him to assume this leadership position, leaving “a power vacuum that will be difficult for Chávez’s political heirs across the hemisphere to fill.”

But claims that Chávez’s death represents a major blow to left-leaning politics through the continent both overestimate Chávez’s personal influence and the unity of these leftist governments. It is certainly true that Hugo Chávez was the public face of Latin America’s modern leftist governments, much more than Chávez’s longtime partner Fidel Castro. Castro was the venerable elder, politely respected, but largely irrelevant; Chávez the ambitiously energetic younger with the deep pockets to grease the patronage channels Castro could not. But it’s a mistake to understand Chávez’s leadership position as a practical one, rather than the symbolic role it actually was. As Colin M. Snider recently noted, Latin America’s left-leaning leaders are a disparate group that share between them as many distinctions as similarities, and certainly aren’t a unified bloc existentially dependent on Chávez’s continued leadership. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff leads a government perceived as significantly more technocratic than Chávez’s populist regime, and enjoys growing international clout largely unavailable to Venezuela. Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa are populists and were strong Chávez allies, but it’s difficult to argue that either’s domestic appeal will be somehow less politically viable now that Chávez is gone.

But despite Chávez’s undeniable regional influence, there’s no reason to think that his absence leaves an unsustainable vacuum. This symbolic leadership position was forged by Chávez’s narcissism, and there’s no reason for it to necessarily exist now that he is gone. Hugo Chávez aspired to a position of international leadership, and when one wasn’t available  he rhetorically co-opted otherwise disparate left-leaning Latin American governments into a nominal “movement”. Certainly various leaders, Morales and Correa especially, both supported and politically gained from this co-option, their electoral successes weren’t dependent on it, primarily because the narrative of South America’s leftist resurgence has always been stronger than it’s actual significance. This perception gap is driven by politics — both supporters and detractors of this so-called resugence have an incentive to rhetorically paint it as either more revolutionary or more threatening than it actually is. South American politics are becoming more open and competitive, and the United States’ influence over the region is certainly diminishing. But contrary to the claims of leftists and their opponents, the successes of left-leaning leaders in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina is more likely a cyclical trend than a long-term revolution. Chávez may have taken advantage of this swing, but despite his self-congratulating rhetoric he did not create or sustain it.

But while South America’s recent leftist electoral successes doesn’t comprise any unified movement that will suffer terribly at Chávez’s absence, it’s also unlikely that his outsized figurehead position will be filled anytime soon. Chávez wasn’t able to position himself as one of the most influential leaders in Latin America simply because of Venezuela’s oil wealth. While the largess oil revenue made possibile certainly bolstered his influence, Chávez became the symbolic figure that he was because he wanted it, and had the personal charisma and combative style to back up this ambition. Even among successful populist politicians Chávez’s ability to draw — and polarize — international attention is rare. The global importance of Venezuela’s oil certainly gave Chávez a platform, and he would not have been as internationally visible if he was the leader of another country. But there is no reason to think that another left-leaning Latin American leader will soon have the capability or ambition to replicate the Chávez brand.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin


What I read this week:

The Wall Street Journal interviews Olli Heinonen.

The Darfur genocide, ten years on.

The Robama doctrine.

Matt Duss on why Senators Robert Menendez and Lindsey Graham’s blank check of support to Israel is a terrible idea.

“What’s going to happen to us now? Chávez was Venezuela.” Francisco Torro has more on Chávez’s autocratic tendencies, and Rory Carroll writes about his economic mismanagement. Last month Alvaro Vargas Llosa questioned whether Chávez’s death would mean the end of the revitalized Latin American left; Colin M. Snider casts doubts on these claims.

Oddisee – All Along the River.

Recognizing Genocide

By Taylor Marvin

At The Spectator, Alex Massie argues that Syria is not “Obama’s Rwanda”, a conclusion Daniel Larison seconds. But the biggest problem with allusions linking the West’s failure to act in Rwanda to its current inaction in Syria isn’t the post-Rwanda precedent of the Iraq War that makes the American public even more hesitant to intervene in outbursts of ethnic violence. Instead, the greatest distinction is that the Syrian crisis is not a genocide. Recently Erica Chenoweth and Oliver Kaplan addressed the inappropriateness of the term genocide to describe Syria’s violence:

“A more appropriate term might be politicide, where violence is directed against political opponents. But these days, it is also clear that the Free Syrian Army and its militia affiliates are themselves responsible for plenty of deaths as well, meaning that it is a civil war (albeit a lopsided/asymmetric one) by any conventional standard.”

This is entirely true. While the Syrian conflict has a clear ethnic dimension, Assad’s war crimes targeting the opposition and civilians do not meet the criteria of genocide. Given that armed opposition groups appear to be a serious threat to regime military forces it’s unclear if Assad actually possesses the capacity to pursue a genocidal campaign, even if he desired to.

But if the Assad regime’s brutality doesn’t meet the criteria for genocide, why is it frequently referred to as such? Actual campaigns of genocide are comparatively rare, but this rarity is obscured by the popular and academic attention the genocides that do occur rightly attract. Given the popular attention devoted to the horrors of genocide it isn’t surprising that the term is often abused. First, as Chenoweth and Kaplan note, both Syrian and international advocates of intervention in Syria have an incentive to portray the conflict as one-sided as possible, an asymmetric gravity the term “genocide” certainly conveys. Secondly, there really isn’t another commonly-recognized term that conveys the horror of large-scale killings that nevertheless fall short of genocide. Chenoweth and Kaplan’s “politicide” isn’t in common usage, and anyway — unlike “genocide” — doesn’t specify the scale of violence. Similarly, in the public mind the more accurate designation of “war crimes” is more-often understood as reference to smaller-scale atrocities like the Mai Lai massacre, rather than systematic violence. In the absence of a better, popularly understood term for massive, long-term systematic terror campaigns, the ultimate designation of genocide will continue to be abused.

This is problematic for two main reasons. First, abusing the term disrespects the victims of actual genocides, whether Armenians, European Jews or Slavs, or Rwandan Tutsis, among many others. Of course, this isn’t to say that the suffering and loss victims of non-genocide war crimes experience is any less than the victims of genocide, but it is important to recognize that genocides are horribly unique. Linking the Syrian civil war with the Holocaust obscures more than it reveals. Secondly, because using the term genocide as a catch-all for large-scale war crimes lessens its impact in the popular imagination, this practice makes it easier for policymakers to ignore future genocides.

Applying the term genocide to the Syrian crisis today is particularly problematic because it may be terribly applicable in the future. Again, while this doesn’t disparage the suffering of today’s victims of violence — whether inflicted by the regime, the opposition, or third parties — deeming the conflict “genocide” now will lessen the term’s impact if it ever does actually apply. If Assad is overthrown Syria’s Alawite minority will likely face extensive, bloody reprisals. Depending on the scale of these reprisals Syria could witness a genocide, though one that targets the supporters, not opponents, of the regime. Unfortunately, this outcome of the war has become more likely the longer the conflict has dragged on. Even if the opposition is unable to actually overthrow Assad the regime will likely be unable to ever regain its pre-crisis control over the country — too many Syrians are too bitterly opposed to the regime, and too many weapons have flowed into Syria for Assad’s government to ever again effectively administer the entire country. This future weak state capacity throughout Syria will be conductive to ethnic violence by anti-regime militants. If Assad is overthrown, former rebels will be able to pursue reprisal campaigns targeting Alawites with even greater impunity.

If genocide targeting Alawites does occur in Syria, it will be very difficult for the international community to prevent or halt. Even if a victorious opposition is engaged in genocidal violence against communities perceived as regime partisans, if will be difficult for international leaders to convince their own domestic audiences of the necessity to oppose the previously-victimized opposition they once supported. Similarly, Western leaders have little leverage over the Syrian opposition that perceives itself as abandoned by the outside world today; if the opposition manages to unseat Assad without decisive outside help, the international community will likely have no leverage to prevent reprisal campaigns. While the outcome of the Syrian crisis remains uncertain, international organizations should begin to examine their options for preventing genocide should the regime fall.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Author unknown, early 18th century. Via Wikimedia.

Author unknown, early 18th century. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

India’s child coal miners.

Erik Gartzke has new research on why cyber-conflicts are likely to be limited.

“A wise investment in foreign policy can yield for a nation the same return that education does for a student. And no investment that we make that is as small as this investment puts forward such a sizeable benefit for ourselves and for our fellow citizens of the world.” – John Kerry.

Paraguay’s Argo.

Staying on the topic of Argo, Nima Shirazi has a scathing take on the film. I’ve previously defended the film’s presentation of history as acceptable for the format, but Shirazi’s piece is well argued.

Is it time to redefine “soft power”?

Why North Korea didn’t just test a Iranian nuclear device. Relatedly, Joseph Cirincione has high praise for Obama new nuclear policy team.

Wrenching photos from Mali.

Trentemøller – Sycamore Feeling

The Path-Dependency of Foreign Policy Resolve

DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy.

DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy.

By Taylor Marvin

Why did members of the Republican Party so bitterly oppose the Obama administration’s decision to nominate former Senator Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary? After Hagel’s confirmation this ultimately-pointless intransigence appears to have been a poor strategic decision, but this assessment isn’t plain solely in hindsight. Executives are generally recognized to have broad latitude in selecting their own cabinet, and Republicans’ decision to filibuster Hagel’s nomination was simply a terrible PR decision — not only did it come off as overreaching and excessively partisan, it simply looks petulant.

If the effort to block Hagel’s nomination was never that likely to succeed, why did Republicans push so hard for it? This is particularly puzzling because the Hagel nomination could have conceivably been spun as a victory for Republicans. At a time when the Republican party is acutely concerned that it is losing its historical advantage on national security issues to the Democrats, the perception that Obama had to look in the Republican camp for a competent defense secretary could surely be valuable.

One explanation for the Republican vitriol towards Hagel is precisely his Republican history, which fed a palpable sense of betrayal among conservatives, in particular Senator McCain. But partisan anger doesn’t explain the full extent of the quixotic and self-harming Republican fight against the nomination. Conor Friedersdorf recently attributed this opposition to the information gap between dedicated conservative commentary and the rest of the media establishment. Because conservative media is largely an entertainment, rather than informatory, good, it has a business incentive to create unrealistic expectations among grassroots conservatives, who then send these demands up the chain to Republican lawmakers. “Hagel’s opponents in conservative media weren’t just misinforming their readers,” Daniel Larison writes, reflecting on Friedersdorf’s argument. “They were immersing themselves in misinformation and congratulating themselves on their keen insights into reality.” To conservative agenda-setters Hagel wasn’t a fairly run-of-the-mill conservative realist; instead, he was a radical whose nomination could and should have been blocked at all costs.

Going further, Robert Farley explains the fight as an internal sorting process between the neoconservative and realist foreign policy wings of the Republican party. Though out-of-power Republicans aren’t able to directly set American foreign policy now, this internal sorting process matters because today’s reputation gains through demonstrations of partisan resolve help the neoconservatives ensure that they, not realists intellectually aligned with Hagel, will be the ascendent group in the next Republican administration. Farley writes:

“The cultural story runs as follows; one of the central planks of neoconservative foreign policy thinking is the important of resolve. Resolve aids both deterrence and compellence; throwing a country against the wall now and again enhances U.S. power and prestige. If resolve works on the international level, it probably works on the domestic level. The Hagel fight represented a cheap opportunity to display resolve; even in a hopeless fight, the neocons show that they’re willing to push beyond all reasonable means to carry on the struggle.”

Writing at the Daily BeastPeter Beinart independently expands this argument. Bitter opposition to Hagel isn’t simply about furthering the perception that neoconservatives and not realists are the natural intellectual drivers of Republican foreign policy, it’s about defending their signature accomplishment, the Bush Doctrine. “The right’s core problem with Hagel was that he had challenged the Bush doctrine,” Beinart writes. “But by reminding Americans of the potential costs of preventive war, Hagel was implying that containment and deterrence might be preferable,” an unacceptable admission of the limits of American global influence and challenge to the neoconservative enshrinement of resolve.

What’s so fascinating about this dynamic is how obviously fantastical the Bush Doctrine — which Beinart defines as the rejection of containment and deterrence as acceptable foreign policy tools — has always been, and the obviousness of this core deficiency. For over a decade neoconservatives have loudly insisted that an Iranian nuclear capability is absolutely unacceptable, yet despite stressing the acute dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation quietly accepted North Korea’s ascension to the nuclear club during the same period. “Resolve” aside, this inconsistency should be lost on no one. After all, Bush’s 2002 State of the Union clearly qualified the North Korean regime equally “evil” as Iran’s, and presumably as resistant to containment.

The lesson was clear: despite declarations that the modern world made containment and deterrence unacceptably dangerous strategic concepts, neoconservatives weren’t prepared to follow their own rhetoric to its logical conclusions when it was inconvenient to do so. The American public could be convinced to support an invasion of Iraq when the Bush administration wanted to demonstrate that Donald Rumsfeld’s revitalized Defense Department was capable of replacing inconvenient foreign regimes at minimal costs. Americans would have reacted much less favorably to calls for an invasion of a possibly nuclear-armed North Korea, even if it posed a much greater threat than Saddam Hussein.

Neoconservatives’ practical inconsistency was always obvious to perceptive observers. Of the three axis of evil states, the Bush administration elected to invade the one farthest from nuclear capability simply because Iraq was armed with a decrepit military and its flat geography was amenable to armored invasion. Even before the disastrous occupation of Iraq laid bare its limitations, the Bush Doctrine was alway more about strongman posturing than a consistant worldview.

Yet despite these very obvious limitations, neoconservatism remains the driver of Republican foreign policy thought. While today’s neoconservatives haven’t attained another policy victory on the scale of the Iraq War, they largely haven’t moderated their philosophy in the last decade. When Lindsey Graham says containing a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, he isn’t staking out a realistic policy position — as the US reaction to North Korea’s successful nuclear ambitions should make obvious. But if the Bush Doctrine, and neoconservative thinking in general, is unworkable, why has it persisted?

The problem is once individual politicians have invested themselves in resolve-heavy neoconservative doctrine, it’s very difficult for them to extract themselves from it while retaining political credibility. Unlike realism — or, to a much lesser extent, liberalism — neoconservative thought by definition stresses consistency regardless of external conditions. Placing value on consistant expressions of resolve makes neoconservatism itself an incredibly path-dependent framework: once credibility has been invested in expressions of resolve, subsequent rhetoric can only escalate these expressions without sacrificing credibility. In this self-reinforcing positive feedback loop it’s very difficult for individual lawmakers and pundits moderate their policy positions. The target of neoconservative resolve can change — as today’s focus on Iran’s nuclear ambitions while North Korea’s are comparatively ignored — but the level of resolve must at least remain constant. Until neoconservative politicians figure out how to untangle previous expressions of resolve and their future credibility — or retire — neoconservatism will remain a significant constraint on the shape of US foreign policy.