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Posts tagged ‘Marco Rubio’

Is Obama Signaling the Obvious to Terrorists?

By Taylor Marvin

A helicopter carrying then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates flies of Baghdad in 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby

A helicopter carrying then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates flies over Baghdad in 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby.

After the stunning advance through northern Iraq last week by the Sunni jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, and its allies, many are calling for US military action in support of the embattled Iraqi government and its security forces. American efforts would, most likely, consist of airstrikes targeting ISIS forces in Iraq, strikes the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has specifically requested. While the Obama administration has not ruled out airstrikes, many of President Obama’s Republican opponents in Congress have already begun to criticize the president’s inaction.

In particular, Senator Marco Rubio faulted the president for warning Friday that the United States would not send “U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”* (Limited numbers of military personnel have already been deployed to the country, reportedly to protect the US embassy in Baghdad.) As Politico reports:

“I don’t think it’s wise for the commander in chief to step forward and immediately begin to rule options out. Even if he never intends to send a single American soldier, he shouldn’t be signaling that to terrorists,” Rubio (R-Fla.) said in an interview. “You should not be going around announcing what you won’t do.”

Daniel Larison sees Rubio’s statement as at best “a useless criticism.” The prospect of large numbers of American troops returning to Iraq so soon after the 2011 withdrawal that ended the US occupation of the country would be so unpopular with voters that Rubio would probably immediately disavow it if someone accused Rubio of actually wanting “boots on the ground,” and it’s particularly hard to imagine Rubio faulting the president for not wanting troops in Iraq if Rubio’s party was in a position to set foreign policy. Of course, Rubio’s disapproval of Obama’s refusal to consider sending troops to Iraq is probably best viewed as another aspect of the knee-jerk Republican criticism of all aspects of Obama’s policy choices, rather than a specific critique of a specific policy.

But what’s more interesting here is Rubio’s comment that Obama should not broadcast his intentions to “terrorists,” Rubio’s term for the broad ISIS-lead coalition of Sunni insurgents. The problem with this analysis — which echoes the long-time criticism that Obama should not have publicly set a withdrawal date to accompany his 2009 decision to “surge” additional forces into Afghanistan; see Vali Nasr’s 2013 book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat for a more cognizant example of this argument — is that the various people Rubio accuses Obama of signaling to can make their own judgements.

We obviously cannot get inside the heads of ISIS commanders deciding whether to push towards Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Maliki judging how much help the US is prepared to give him, individual Iraqi soldiers deciding whether to fight or flee, or Iranian President Hassan Rouhani weighing his country’s options. But most of these people know that the US war in Iraq grew less and less popular with Americans as the conflict dragged on and more and more US soldiers came home dead or injured, all for little apparent gain. While many of these local actors may not be familiar with the realities of the United States’ democratic political system, it seems reasonable to suspect that the more astute of them realize that an American return to Iraq would be very unpopular within the US, and that President Obama — or any other president, for that matter — is unlikely to do so. If Prime Minister al-Maliki did not pursue meaningful reconciliation with Iraqi Sunnis because he assumed that the United States would bail him out with ground forces if his government faced a serious threat from his disgruntled countrymen then he made a serious error.

If American management of the current crisis relies on, as Rubio frames it, a credible threat of sending substantial US ground forces to Iraq then this management will fail, because this threat simply isn’t credible. Obama’s announcement that he will not pursue a policy that would be incredibly unpopular doesn’t tell the “terrorists” much that they likely didn’t already assume.

*[Correction: June 19, 2014] This line originally read “significant numbers of ground troops to Iraq,” which isn’t precise enough framing, rather than quoting the president. As I noted in my Tuesday review at PVG and a commenter at Larison’s post remarked, advisers and special forces often accompany air campaigns in support of allied ground forces, though Obama presumably excluded this option from his July 13th statement that “we will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.” On June 19th Obama announced that up to 300 special forces advisers will indeed be sent to Iraq.

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What Should the US Do About Venezuela?

By Taylor Marvin

Image by María Alejandra Mora, via Wikimedia.

Image by María Alejandra Mora, via Wikimedia.

In Venezuela demonstrations against the government of Hugo Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro continue, and have left over a dozen dead. The demonstrators, who have mobilized under the Twitter hashtag #LaSalida, a reference to many’s demand for Maduro’s “exit,” have taken to the streets to voice their frustration with Venezuela’s economic malaise, shortages of basic goods, and stunning crime rate. Government supporters, who have mobilized in their own counter-demonstrations, accusers the student-led protesters of pursuing a coup against the — in his supporters’ view — democratically-elected Maduro. The government’s response has been harsh, with attempts to silence opposition social media and pro-government thugs on motorcycles firing into the crowds. Like many embattled regimes before it, the Maduro government appears determined to shred whatever legitimacy it once had outside of its die-hard supporters through pointless violence — but it is unclear if the unrest seriously threatens the government’s survival.

While President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have denounced the government’s tactics, others want the United States to take a more forceful stance. In a Monday speech Republican Senator Marco Rubio highlighted the Maduro government’s brutal repression of the demonstrations, terming the Obama administration’s reaction “shameful” and calling for sanctions against those responsible for the brutality. “They look for America to be on their side,” Rubio said of Venezuelans and Cubans. “We should be clear about these things.”

Another columnist referenced the Obama administration’s response to the violence as another reason why the the President can’t “command the respect of other nations.”

It’s right to be angry about the Venezuelan government’s complete disregard for its citizens. But hastily conceived actions motivated only by outrage, however morally justified, are not good policy.

First, it is important to understand that recognizing this nuance is neither an endorsement of the Maduro government nor a repudiation of socialism, as so many partisan international observers seem to believe. As Michael Moynihan warns, leftists’ sympathy for self-identified socialist governments and distrust of US “imperialism” is no excuse for voicing support for a government busy shooting down unarmed students in the street. The Maduro government is a chaotic wreck that has continued Chávez’s project of dismanteling Venezuela’s independent public institutions and market economy in favor of patronage channels the leader can control and a mild personality cult. Maduro’s response to student demonstrations has been to mobilize militias to attack demonstrators, brandish swords, shut down internet communications and expel foreign journalists — whose reporting he labeled “war propaganda” — and denounce his political opponents as fascists.

But this brutality does not erase the passions mobilizing both Maduro’s supporters and opponents. In a pro-chavista piece published in the Nation, George Ciccariello-Maher makes the point that “these protests have far more to do with returning economic and political elites to power than with their downfall.” This is somewhat true — the protests do reflect middle class concerns over those of the poor who were politically marginalized under the oligarchic two-party system that predated Chávez — but conveniently ignores protesters’ real concerns that populists like Maduro tear down the ladder of democratic institutions, not to mention economic stability, behind them. In a more measured piece for the Brazilian magazine Carta Capital, left-wing politician Jean Wyllys notes the contradictions of Venezuela’s political conflict, which is often lost on its observers. “Denying the social advances won by Venezuela’s poorest people during the government of Hugo Chávez is as wrong as denying the problems that the country currently faces,” Wyllys writes. “Saying that chavismo — which won repeated elections and referendums with absolute transparency and with international observers — is a ‘dictatorship’ is as wrong as not repudiating the regime’s authoritarianism.” [My translation.]

While Maduro’s victory in the 2013 election are difficult to call completely “fair” in the context of degraded democratic institutions, observers should not forget that though Maduro has apparently failed to forge the same charismatic appeal as his predecessor chavismo’s welfare programs and perceived representation of the poor has real democratic appeal.

All this isn’t to say that the US doesn’t have an interest in the conflict’s outcome. The economic reforms and rule of law the opposition claims to favor would be a real gain for both Venezuela and the entire region, which includes the United States. But that doesn’t change the fact that the US should not interfere in the conflict, either through harsher rhetoric or sanctions.

Like Chávez before him, Maduro appears committed to dismantling the remaining independent institutions essential to sustainable economic growth in favor of personalized patronage and political authoritarianism. But this authoritarian populism does not erase the problems associated with popular movements that throw out elected governments — if #LaSalida somehow does succeed in forcing Maduro out of power, it sets a dangerous precedent the opposition could very well come to regret. It is not clear that the US has much interest in this happening.

But more importantly, this type of domestic political conflict simply isn’t the US government’s business, and even if it was the US has very little practical leverage anyway. Like many, many of his counterparts around the world and Chávez before him, Maduro’s preferred method of delegitimizing his domestic opposition is labeling them tools of an interfering United States and not representatives of the Venezuelan people Maduro claims to speak for. Given that there is some truth to the government’s narrative that opposition represents the middle class over the poor, and Venezuela’s traditional elites over the beneficiaries of chavismo, overt US encouragement of the opposition is the best thing that could happen to Maduro.

Whatever the Obama administration does, or probably does not, choose to do, Venezuelan politics will remain contentious to years to come. No matter what happens in the coming weeks, the government will remain illegitimate in the eyes of a substantial fraction of the population. Venezuela will likely remain besieged by a brutally high crime rate, extreme political polarization, a failing economy entirely tied to the price of oil, and weakened public institutions in an era when those of many other South American countries have strengthened. The introduction of state violence into this mix does not bode well.

Without any real way to encourage nonviolence and accountability, harsher words and sanctions on Maduro government officials would simply express moral disapproval and further the government’s narrative of a malevolent United States that keeps Venezuelans poor.

Update: Daniel Larison makes a similar point.