Making Enemies from Friends

Hey, Mitt: Russia's not quite America's No. 1 geopolitical foe just yet, but keep up that talk and Vladimir Putin will be happy to oblige.

Is there any respect in which Mitt Romney's now-famous assertion that Russia is "without question our number one geopolitical foe" can be viewed as anything other than ridiculous -- and dangerous -- Cold War nostalgia? The very idea of a "geopolitical foe" is an almost charming anachronism in an era when the United States is menaced more by global forces and stateless entities, or by economic competitors like China or the rest of the so-called BRICS, than it is by aggressive states. Still, if the United States has real geopolitical foes, wouldn't Russia be a strong candidate for No. 1?

In his remarks, made in a CNN interview in March, Romney noted that whenever the United States goes to the United Nations to stop a dictator from wreaking havoc on his own people or threatening his neighbors, "who is it that always stands up for the world's worst actors? It is always Russia, typically with China alongside." (Who knew Romney even believed in the U.N.?) The Washington Post's Fact Checker gave Romney two Pinocchios for gross hyperbole, since Russia has, for example, "cast no vetoes on resolutions concerning Iran and North Korea." But that's quibbling: In recent years, Russia -- generally along with China -- has obstructed efforts to stop mass violence in Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast, and now Syria. Isn't that a bad enough record?

You could say that China was a geopolitical foe -- Romney apparently would, since in speeches he has described China, Russia, and "global jihad" as the chief forces contending for global dominance against the Western democracies -- but that would be mistaking a "rival" for a "foe." China abuses its own people's rights far more grossly than Russia does, but China's sense of its destiny does not require it to pick fights with other countries, least of all with the United States.

By contrast, President Vladimir Putin's Russia requires enemies -- most of all the United States. Putin shocked his audience at the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy by lashing out at the United States as the source of "an almost uncontained hyper use of force" which was "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts." Of course, Putin was not the only world leader to deplore the militarism of George W. Bush's administration. But he has actually ratcheted up the rhetoric since then, accusing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of seeking to instigate street violence in Russia. Putin surely would not hesitate in identifying the United States as Russia's No. 1 geopolitical foe.

Putin demonizes the United States, defends killers like Syria's Bashar al-Assad, and drags his feet on Iran. His senior military commander has warned that if Washington installs a planned anti-missile system in Eastern Europe, Russia will "use destructive force pre-emptively" -- which sounds like an invitation to World War III. Putin really does have contempt for those who seek democracy both at home and abroad, so he has brazenly backed authoritarian rulers in the Arab world while promoting legislation at home that brands civil society groups that receive funding from abroad as "foreign agents" (i.e., traitors). He believes that victory goes to the strong and plainly views the placatory American president as soft.

If Putin always acted the way he sounds, Russia might well be America's No. 1 geopolitical foe. But he doesn't. In 2010, Russia agreed to impose tough sanctions on Iran and canceled the sale to Tehran of the S-300 anti-missile system. Russia signed the New START arms-control treaty and agreed to let U.S. troops transit from Afghanistan through Russian territory. In fact, Russia occupies a space in between a rival like China and a foe like Iran. For all his bluster, Putin has shown that he will work with Washington on issues where Russian and American interests converge. Romney argues that the Obama administration's "reset" with Russia failed to fundamentally change Moscow's behavior, but that's the wrong metric: The goal of the reset was to reduce the antagonism that had built up in the aftermath of Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia so that Putin would focus more on shared interests and less on his zero-sum calculus, which requires the United States to fail in order for Russia to succeed. And that demonstrably happened.

But this brings us to the really interesting question: Is the reset over? Is Russia now in fact becoming a geopolitical foe? And if so, why? One obvious answer is that Putin has now replaced the more moderate and modern Dmitry Medvedev as president. Medvedev sought to be an interlocutor with the West; Putin does not. But that presupposes that it was Medvedev, not Putin, who was guiding Russian policy during the period of the reset; and frankly, no Russia expert -- or Russian citizen -- believes that. As a recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace puts it, the new era began not with Putin's inauguration this past May, but with the unprecedented demonstrations against his rule starting late last year. The old formula of "authoritarianism with the consent of the governed" no longer held, since "that consent has been partially withdrawn." What has changed, in short, is not Putin's view of the world but his own political predicament.

The good news is that Putin remains the same brutally realist calculator of Russian national interest he has long been. The bad news is that the new confrontation at home appears to be making him yet more confrontational toward the rest of the world. As Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations told me, he has "shifted from the people who benefited most from Putinism" -- the new urban middle class -- "to the people who benefited least, a Nixon 'silent-majority' strategy." And he is feeding that audience a steady diet of nationalism, raging against alleged enemies both in their midst and abroad. This almost certainly accounts for the almost farcically hostile reception he has accorded U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, one of the chief architects of the reset. "Standing up" to America and the West has thus become more central to Putin's strategy for political survival. What's more, as Sestanovich points out, the United States, whether under a President Obama or a President Romney, will continue to feel compelled to criticize Putin's domestic repression, which will in turn drive the Russian leader into a fury.

So how should Washington deal with this not-quite-rival, not-quite-foe? Obama administration officials I spoke to pointed out that the United States and Russia continue to work together on a wide range of issues and insisted that Putin, like Obama, can operate a "dual-track policy," alternating hostile rhetoric with pragmatic calculations of national interest. But I'm not sure even they believe that. In recent months the Obama administration has notably hardened its own rhetoric, including Clinton's dramatic accusation that Russia was stoking Syria's killing machine by supplying and servicing attack helicopters for the Assad regime. Romney says that the time has come to "reset the reset," but you could argue that the administration has already begun to do just that. The rosy era of "engagement," when Obama believed that he could establish a more benign global environment through gestures of deference to national sensibilities, quotations from the Quran, or inspiring autobiographical references is over. A second Obama term, should it happen, would probably focus more on strengthening bonds with traditional allies -- in Asia, as we have now heard ad nauseam -- and less on trying to convert rivals and adversaries.

A realistic reckoning with the limits of America's capacity to change the behavior of unfriendly states is very different from the idea of greeting hostility with hostility, as Romney and the neocons among his team of advisors seem prepared to do. Romney says that he would "review the implementation of the New START treaty" and return to a missile defense plan that Russia views, no matter how absurdly, as a threat to its survival. Romney says that Russia needs to be "tempered," whatever that means. Of course, Putin will greet any overt attempt to block or encircle Russia as a direct provocation; and he is a man who goes around looking for provocations to respond to. A President Romney, in short, might well turn Russia into the geopolitical foe which candidate Romney claims it already is.



Qaddafi Lives

As Libya holds its first post-revolutionary elections, the Brother Leader's legacy is proving hard to overcome.

Click here to see exclusive photos from the Qaddafi family archive. 

On the eve of the Libyan elections, it is easy to forget that just one year ago parts of the country were still in the grip of one of the most unusual dictators of the contemporary era. Yet while the giant portraits and revolutionary slogans have been torn down, the specter of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's four decades at the helm still hangs heavy over the country.

On July 7, Libyans will go to the polls to elect members of a General National Congress, which will replace the National Transitional Council that has ruled since Qaddafi's overthrow. The congress will not only be charged with ruling the country -- it will form the body that will draft Libya's new constitution. But the poll will be held under the colonel's long shadow: Libya's post-Qaddafi existence has been bedeviled by regional divisions, out-of-control militias, and inexperienced political leaders. Indeed, the new congress is likely to turn out to be a bizarre mishmash of tribal chiefs, nascent political parties, militia leaders, Islamists, and former jihadists. It is difficult to imagine how such a mixed bunch will be able to reach a consensus, let alone run the country.

The self-styled Brother Leader's legacy may have stripped Libya of its political consciousness, but in truth, the country's politics were not particularly developed under the monarchy that preceded him. Libya had an elected parliament after independence in 1951, but political activism was confined largely to the urban elite and the monarchy, which ensured that the palace held the keys to power. In any case, the country's experiment with democracy was cut short by Qaddafi's 1969 coup.

After coming to power, Qaddafi sought to shake the country out of its political apathy -- to rouse an entire nation to a political and cultural awakening. This mass mobilization, however, was to be harnessed completely to the evolving and peculiar vision enunciated in his Green Book. When Libyans proved reluctant to engage in his new "state of the masses" -- what he termed the Jamahiriya -- the colonel declared in 1971 that he would "take the people to paradise in chains."

Qaddafi made good, at least, on the latter part of that promise. His mass mobilization became synonymous with mass repression: All opportunities for political and economic advancement outside the framework of his rule were prohibited. Political parties were banned, and setting up or joining any organization was made punishable by death. Although neighboring regimes in Egypt and Tunisia were authoritarian, they at least allowed some space for opposition parties. Qaddafi's Libya was the enemy of any genuinely independent civil society or professional organizations -- the entire public arena became an outward manifestation of his bizarre political vision.

The results are clear for all to see. Post-Qaddafi Libya is a land where suspicions of the democratic process, of political parties, and of liberalism more widely still linger. Although some Libyans have rushed to form political parties, the population at large tends to view such institutions with distrust -- a senior Muslim Brotherhood member told me recently that Libyans will vote for personalities over parties. As one Libyan political activist explained, "A large section of the Libyan population is still under the influence of Qaddafi's ideological legacy and his hostility to anything related to political organization."

The most likely result from Libya's upcoming election is political fragmentation, but Qaddafi's long rule has engendered fears that one party might control the new political arena. As a result, the new election law rules that only 80 of the 200 seats in the National General Congress can be allocated to parties, with the rest being reserved for individual candidates. It is for this reason that, while the Islamists are likely to do well in the polls, they will not be in a position to dominate in the same way they have done next door in Tunisia and Egypt.

Even as Libya's new rulers do everything possible to prevent the rise of another Qaddafi, the sad irony is that the colonel's legacy makes this ever more difficult. Qaddafi's refusal to allow any genuine political engagement means that only a few figures -- generally former exiles or those with links to reformists in the former regime -- have achieved national stature. As a result, aside from the Muslim Brotherhood, many of Libya's new parties are focused primarily around one or two personalities. The National Centrist Party, a project of former acting Prime Minister Ali Tarhouni, and Islamist leader Abdelhakim Belhaj's Al-Watan Party are examples of this phenomenon.

Furthermore, many of these parties are firmly anchored in a specific region, with some having to form coalitions in order to extend their reach to the national level. The new Libya has splintered into a collection of local power centers, all jostling to secure the interests of their immediate area -- a backlash against the excessive centralization and rigid control of the Qaddafi era.

The other reason for Libya's intense localism is that Qaddafi was the center -- and when he collapsed, the center collapsed with him. Aside from the energy sector, the colonel failed to create any meaningful institutions that could outlive him. Even the army, kept deliberately weak by Qaddafi, has been unable to survive the crisis and is struggling in the face of the militias, whose legitimacy is drawn from their revolutionary achievements. Despite the complex political system Qaddafi created, the state was really little more than a facade -- a smokescreen behind which Qaddafi and his coterie of close advisors retained complete control.

The intense localism that has emerged is also symptomatic of Qaddafi's failure to stamp a sense of "Libyanness" on the country. His long rule only served to intensify, rather than reduce, regional divisions. Always wary of the east given its links to the former monarchy, the colonel clamped down heavily on the region after it became the focus of an Islamist rebellion in the mid-1990s. The east's grievances would provide the spark that lit last year's revolt, but Qaddafi's punishment of the region has still left a bitter legacy. The east, it seems, has been unable to shake off a perceived sense of marginalization. In its most extreme form, this resentment has manifested itself in a movement for semiautonomy and a refusal to participate in the election.

There is also a wider sense in the east that Libya's new rulers are continuing to treat the region as Tripoli's poor cousin. The eastern city of Benghazi was quick to protest what it deemed to be the unfair distribution of seats in the National General Congress, claiming that it had been underrepresented. That's not to say these regional divisions are hopeless: In what must be one of the most extraordinary developments of the election campaign, the elders of Zawiya, a city near Tripoli, offered this month to give their seats to Benghazi as a gesture of kindness.

Even as cities and localities that suffered under the former regime demand their rights, the areas from which Qaddafi drew loyalists to buttress his regime have faced harsh repression from the country's new rulers. Cities such as Sirte and Bani Walid, which were strongly associated with Qaddafi's rule, have been ravaged as neighboring militias have carried out purges of "Qaddafi's men." In February, for example, the revolutionary May Brigade placed Bani Walid under siege, surrounding the city and cutting off its supplies. The brigade then reportedly looted shops, opened fire on buildings, and took away scores of young men.

These areas have also found themselves on the margins of political life in the new Libya. The election law stipulates that all candidates for the upcoming polls must meet a set of "integrity regulations" that prohibit those with even the most cursory links to the former regime from standing for office. For example, the regulation bars anyone who glorified Qaddafi in the media or in any other public arena, anyone who had a commercial partnership with Qaddafi's sons or senior figures in his regime, any exiled opposition figure who made their peace with the Qaddafi regime, and even anyone who undertook higher studies in the Green Book. It is as if the scars of the past run so deep that the country wants to erase whole areas from the map as well as from the collective memory.

As Libya's fractious politics make clear, the country's efforts to move beyond Qaddafi will not be completed in a single election cycle. This should come as no surprise: The Brother Leader ravaged Libya for more than four decades, and the radical nature of the challenges facing the country today are a reflection of his disastrous rule. The colonel may be dead and gone, but his legacy will continue to haunt Libya for years to come.