Rolling the Dice on U.S. Foreign Policy
by LT. COLONEL JAMES G. ZUMWALT, USMC (RET)
May 3, 2012
In football, a good offensive strategy has the defense not knowing if the next play will be a run or a pass. While an offense's inconsistency in play patterns may win games on the football field, it is a bad strategy in the conduct of foreign policy. It leaves friend and foe alike wondering what we value and what we do not. Therefore, it emboldens those seeking to test us, causing them to gamble as to where we will draw our line in the sand-one not to be crossed.
President Barack Obama has sent out mixed signals as to where he draws his line.
The single four-year term of democratically-elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was to end in January 2010. By law, he could only serve one term. He did not want to leave office so, in 2009, he tried to push through a constitutional change allowing him to run again. When Congress refused to approve it, he scheduled a referendum on the issue-a process lacking legal authority. Although the Honduran Supreme Court had determined earlier the referendum was illegal-a decision Congress then condified-Zelaya defied the Court, moving forward with the referendum.
On the morning the vote was to be held, military troops-on orders from the Supreme Court-entered the presidential palace, seized the sleeping Zelaya and placed him on a plane to Costa Rica. The picture of troops entering the palace gave the appearance of a military coup. The US chose to call it so, immediately terminating most financial assistance to Honduras. The Honduran Constitution, laying out the procedure for removing from office a president for abuse of power, was written with US assistance; yet, despite the interim government's full compliance with it, the US refused to support that legal process, pressing instead for Zelaya's reinstatement.
In an action that should have immediately sent signals to Washington it was on the wrong side of this issue, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez-who never misses an opportunity to abuse his own country's laws-supported the US position. Fortunately, the Honduran interim government stood by its actions, later holding an election for the office vacated by Zelaya.
We now fast forward to 2012 and Maldives, where a real military coup deposed its president, Mohamed Nasheed. Although Maldives is a Muslim country in which freedom of religion is significantly restricted, Nasheed had all the right tickets punched to warrant US support as democracy's "poster child." He was elected democratically in the country's first multi-party election in 2008. He had been a lifetime advocate for democracy and human rights. As president, he revised school curriculum, making it more balanced and less Islamic. He restored relations with Israel after they had been suspended for three decades under the previous president's autocratic rule.
Yet, when coup leaders forced Nasheed to resign on February 7 after taking him hostage, the US quickly recognized his successor-Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan-who says elections will be held next year. It appears Islamic extremists are now re-gaining an upper hand in Maldives as on the day Nasheed resigned, in an act reminiscent of the Taliban's 2001 destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamian in Afghanistan, ancient Buddhist statues in the National Museum were smashed. Islamists also have acted to restore their influence over the school curriculum.
In both Honduras and the Maldives, the White House acted before thinking. In both cases, it disregarded each nation's rule of law that provided how the transition to power was to occur. In Honduras, it failed to support a government's legal action to remove a president from office who, while coming to power legally, continued to serve illegally; in the Maldives, it supported a president who came to power illegally and continues to so serve.
But this is not the only mixed signal given by the Obama Administration when it comes to the conduct of foreign policy.
As the Arab Spring spread to Libya in February 2011, it took only 32 days for the UN Security Council to authorize a no-fly zone and to use "all necessary measures" (i.e., military action) to protect civilians. Everyone understood such action required mostly US military assets. Although Libyan civilians were being slaughtered, necessitating UN action to stop it, US national interests actually favored keeping strongman Muammar Gaddafi in power as he too sought to contain Islamic extremism. He also was in the process of cooperating with the US in the surrender of his weapons of mass destruction program.
After Gaddafi's fall, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told an audience in Rwanda the US became involved in Libya as it feared a killing spree, similar to Rwanda's 1994 genocide, claiming Obama did not want to witness "another predictable horror unfold." Rice suggested not acting would give license to dictators to kill the Arab Spring. She noted, not wanting to repeat the failures to act in Rwanda and Darfur, action was taken in time in Libya. She added, "we will not stand idly by when we have the capability to stop an atrocity," citing a new doctrine-the Responsibility to Protect (R2P)-compelling the international community to protect civilians in other countries when their own government fails to do so.
Setting aside Gaddafi's effort to contain Islamists and the fact his departure opened the door for them to gain ground, the decision by the US to act in Libya was based on all the right reasons.
The above justification for action in Libya, therefore, should support taking similar action in Syria where at least 10,000 civilians have now been killed. However, despite more than a year of brutal suppression of his people by President Bashar Assad, the US has taken no action to stop the killing. The license Rice reportedly sought to deny Gaddafi by inaction has been granted to Assad by our failure to act. The R2P doctrine remains just as applicable to Syria as it was to Libya. While Rice's earlier boast "we will not stand idly by when we have the capability to stop an atrocity" may have played well to her audience in Rwanda, it now sounds like mere puffery.
Even more irrational in our foreign policy conduct is that, while there was at least one national security reason for not acting in Libya as Gaddafi was an ally in containing Islamism, no national security reason exists for not acting in Syria-in fact, a very important one dictates we do act. As Syria is solidly in Iran's camp with Assad serving as its puppet, we actually have an opportunity to improve our security situation by helping to topple him. And, even if a Sunni Islamist government succeeds Assad-presenting a new set of challenges for the US-the interests of Damascus would also lie in blocking Iran from spreading its Shiite influence outside its borders.
The compass we are following in the conduct of our foreign policy seems to be spinning aimlessly. If we are not going be consistent in its conduct, we might as well put the compass away and pull out the dice. Our adversaries are gambling on what our foreign policy decisions will be. We might as well do the same.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.