ObliqueSpeak in the Age of Obama

SOUTHCOM commander communicates plenty of subtext when talking about Iran in Latin America.

Officials of the US government seem to have a great deal of trouble addressing anything directly and with good-faith precision any more.  With subtle shifts in terms, and the practice of emphasizing one aspect of a situation while ignoring others, many of the Obama administration’s spokesmen convey counterfactual impressions without making outright invalid statements.  It’s all in the packaging; it’s getting worse by the day; and as we will see, it carries real dangers.

A case in point this week involves the “balcony” in Miami – the headquarters of the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) – from which US military forces survey the region of Latin America.  There’s been a strange transformation in the public comments and testimony of Air Force General Douglas Fraser, SOUTHCOM’s commander. He’s being widely quoted this week apparently contradicting the recent defense intelligence report that indicated there is a growing Iranian Qods force presence in Venezuela. But that’s just one topic on which Fraser’s statements have seemed to contradict both the assertions of other officials and his own previous comments.

The oddest aspect of Fraser’s most recent statements is that they come across as an evasive effort to downplay concerns for which there has long been clear justification. Here are his comments to reporters on April 27:

Fraser…told a group of defense reporters Iran did not have a military presence in Venezuela.

“We see a growing Iranian interest and engagement with Venezuela. … It’s a diplomatic, it’s a commercial presence. I haven’t seen evidence of a military presence,” Fraser said.

Asked whether he was contradicting the Pentagon report and earlier comments to the same effect by the director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, Fraser said: “I don’t see it as a contradiction.”

“I see an increasing presence of Iran in Latin America. … I don’t have all the details of what that means,” he said.

First of all, this isn’t actually a direct answer to the question about a growing Qods footprint in Venezuela. The Qods force is a paramilitary organization. In other countries, like those in North Africa, it operates through Iran’s embassies. In no instance does an increase in the number of Qods agents look like a conventional “military presence”; it looks like the insertion of spies, guerrilla facilitators, and direct-action operatives. Since Venezuela would be a regional base for the Qods force, rather than being itself the target of guerrilla action (as Lebanon and Iraq are), the Qods profile there would have even less of the aspect of a military build-up. Considering that such a build-up is not the implication of the defense intelligence assessment to begin with, it’s not clear why Fraser would argue against a strawman.

Meanwhile, his statement that he doesn’t have “all the details” of what an increasing Iranian presence means is really off-key. It doesn’t tally with his status as the US military commander for the region, of course. But it’s also inconsistent with his certainty that Iran’s presence is commercial and diplomatic in character. A lack of details would seem to put such certainty in question.

And the main reason for that is the circumstance Fraser doesn’t refer to at all: the well-established presence of Hezbollah in Latin America – including Venezuela and FARC in Colombia – and Hezbollah’s connection to Iran and the Qods force. The vast literature on this topic includes official statements from Fraser’s predecessor as SOUTHCOM commander, Admiral James Stavridis, in 2008 and 2009. Indeed, Fraser himself spoke categorically of his concern about this aspect of Iran’s Latin American presence in June of 2009, when he assumed command of SOUTHCOM:

“The real concern is not a nation-to-nation interaction, it is the connection that Iran has with extremist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, and the potential risk that that could bring to this region,” Fraser told journalists ahead of taking up the post.

But by March 2010 Fraser was temporizing on this assessment in an interview with the Americas Society [all emphases added]:

I see what Iran and the governments within Latin America are doing…as economic development, political development, and relation-building. And so those are all normal activities that we would expect all governments to engage in. From that aspect, I see that as normal government-to-government, nation-to-nation activity.

My only concern with Iranian activity is their historic relationship with a couple of terrorist organizations, meaning Hamas and Hezbollah, and the fact that both those organizations are resident in one form or another within Latin America and the Caribbean. So it’s just that relationship because of where and how it exists in other parts of the world and just a skepticism of whether or not that relationship translates from the Mid-East into our region. I don’t have any evidence of that. It’s just skepticism…

The only evidence we have right now is there is a relationship between Hamas, Hezbollah, and their parent organizations—primarily logistics support and financial support. I don’t see any evidence of terrorist activity within Latin America or the Caribbean from outside of the region. The only terrorist activities that we’re focused on right now are the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] in Colombia as well as Sendero Luminoso [Shining Path] in Peru.

Fraser’s qualifiers can only be characterized as an attempt to downplay the threat. The strawman implication that someone out there is exaggerating the threat and Fraser’s here to set things straight hovers over these comments like a penumbra over the Constitution. In light of this interview and the April 27 session with reporters, Fraser’s testimony to Congress in March comes off as an effort to walk a fine line between acknowledging what Congress has heard from his predecessor, and presenting a more complacent picture of the Iran-Venezuela nexus. There is this exchange with John McCain:

Senator McCain: How do you assess the threat of the cooperation between Iran and Venezuela…. As you know last week Spain’s High Court said the Venezuelan government facilitated contacts between the FARC and ETA to plan the assassination of Colombian officials visiting Spain, including President Uribe. Do you have any information on that? And other activities on the part of the Venezuelan government?

General Fraser: I do not have any direct information on that. We have continued to watch very closely for any connections between illicit and terrorist organization activity within the region. We have not seen any connections specifically that I can verify that there has been direct government to terrorist connection. We are concerned about it. I’m skeptical. I continue to watch for it.

Senator McCain: You have seen evidence of relationship between the FARC and the Venezuelan government. That’s been published many times.

General Fraser: I know that there is evidence of FARC (McCain interrupts: “I mean they got the hard drives when they raided the FARC camp…”). There has been some old evidence, but I don’t see that evidence and I can’t tell you specifically whether that continues or not.

And this one in the House:

Q: Is there any evidence … that say Hezbollah has been engaged in the drug trafficking business to raise money for some of its operations in the Middle East?… Are there any reports to that effect?

General Fraser: There have been some reports within the southern command region … of Hezbollah starting to get engaged with illegal trafficking area, so I have that indication. It is primarily right now a focus on logistics support, financial support to their parent organizations in the Mid East.

“Starting to get engaged with illegal trafficking”? Considering that agencies of the US government have been affirming that engagement for years, foreign officials have attested to it, and civilian think tanks have done studies of it, this way of putting it comes across as disingenuous, to say the least. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here to read up on the topic.)

Additional context is implied by what is left out of Fraser’s 2010 Posture Statement. Since March 2009, when Admiral Stavridis presented the last posture statement to Congress, Hugo Chavez announced the nuclear cooperation accord between Venezuela and Iran; Israel  announced evidence that Bolivia and Venezuela are supplying uranium to Iran (with corroboration on the ground in Bolivia by a Washington Times reporter); and Iran and Venezuela signed a military cooperation agreement described by the Iranian press as a “defensive alliance.” With the Obama administration as concerned as it is about nuclear proliferation, these developments might seem to rate a mention in the US theater commander’s annual posture statement. But apparently they don’t.

Fraser’s document ignores other key trends, like the widely-noted regional arms race and Brazil’s leadership in forming the new South American Defense Council. These trends are squarely within a military commander’s charter to notice and analyze; others, like the Iranian demand that Bolivian nurses don the hijab in a Bolivian hospital built by Iran, might not fall within his official portfolio, but certainly shed an informative light on the actual nature of Iran’s “commercial and diplomatic” initiatives in Central America. With the uranium trafficking, narco-terrorism, and Islamist religious enforcement attending Iran’s activities, Fraser’s Chamber-of-Commerce evocation doesn’t hold up to even superficial scrutiny.

All of this should be kept in mind in inspecting one last theme of General Fraser’s. In the April 27 discussion with journalists, he was at pains to clarify that the US does not see Venezuela as a military threat. “From a military standpoint, I don’t see that there is a military threat to the United States from Venezuela. … I also don’t see that there is the potential for a conflict.” When asked about Chavez’s staying power in Venezuela, he said, “[Chavez] continues to solidify his position in power and so from everything I see he is solidly in place and I don’t see a capacity (within Venezuela) to oppose his position.”

The Washington Post writers set these comments in the context of Chavez’s recurring complaint that the US is issuing “open threats” against him. It’s possible that Fraser didn’t make his comments in response to that charge, but the sequence in the article certainly implies that he did. A senior officer should, in truth, know better than to make comments that suggest a reactionary and defensive posture on the part of the United States. When did it become US policy to affirm that we think Hugo Chavez’s hold on Venezuela is “solidly in place”? No valid objective is served by reacting to Chavez’s provocative themes in the first place, much less with an affirmation of that kind.

And how peculiar that General Fraser was willing to speak categorically in that regard – but professed so little knowledge of the “details” of Iran’s engagement with Venezuela. Unpacking the communications of officials in the Obama administration promises to be an increasingly wearing exercise in the coming months. I am very sorry to see this trend emerging from military commanders.

Cross-posted at Hot Air.


3 thoughts on “ObliqueSpeak in the Age of Obama”

  1. “Unpacking the communications of officials in the Obama administration promises to be an increasingly wearing exercise in the coming months. I am very sorry to see this trend emerging from military commanders.”

    J.E., Why would General Fraser do this? Is it that he wants to assist in Obama’s assumed desire for obfuscation regarding such matters? Such obfuscation making it possible for Obama to plausibly not have to face the harsh realities and subsequent tough decisions?

    Or is General Fraser following direct orders from his Commander in Chief to be vague on the topic, despite his own reservations about being vague?

    Or has he decided that he’s going to take it upon himself to determine what the best policy is in this matter – and the best way to achieve this policy is to obfuscate in this instance?

    Something else? Would you, as retired military, have any idea?

  2. I don’t know, RE. I don’t know anything about General Fraser. He was an Obama appointment, but I don’t have a feel for how far down in the military ranks that is making a political difference these days.

    I will tell you this: Fraser’s comments don’t come across to me as practiced, in the sense of his being someone who is GOOD at subtly shifting the topic and using rhetoric to both evade facts, and hammer favored themes. He doesn’t come across to me as someone who’s good at the “patter,” but more like it’s kind of uncomfortable for him.

    Analysis of the overall situation suggests that the administration’s intention is to stress the theme that it doesn’t see a pretext for getting into a conflict with Hugo Chavez. In the big picture context, that could relate back to the US posture on Honduras during the crisis there. Many of us in the US saw the Obami as acting weakly, and against the interest of the Honduran people’s liberty and constitutional government. But Chavez saw us as using the Honduran problem to strengthen our hand against him.

    He’s the original example of the proposition that the wicked flee when none pursueth. No sensible foreign government would take his fulminations seriously. It’s utterly ridiculous to suggest that the US is coming for Chavez. We don’t need to contort our own national communications to reassure him.

    But that looks like at least part of what we’re doing. I wouldn’t be General Fraser for anything right now. One other thing to keep in mind is that each 4-star theater “combatant” commander has his own permanently assigned inner circle of advisors from the federal agencies. At a minimum, these include a senior foreign service officer from the State Department (called the Political Advisor, or POLAD), and a senior CIA advisor. I think SOUTHCOM still has a senior Treasury advisor permanently assigned as well.

    The 4-stars live and breathe in the atmosphere of politics. It’s 99.99% of what they do. And these advisors not only give them substantive counsel, they also keep them apprised of what winds are blowing in Washington, and what the policy posture is that everyone in the federal government is supposed to be aligning himself with. This is a process by turns stately and frenzied, and 4-stars have a lot less leisure than you might imagine, to think up reasons to take issue with policy in Washington.

    That’s especially true when the policy realm is political strategy and diplomacy, as opposed to military posture and preparing for operations. No one in uniform would dispute the proposition that the US posture on Venezuela, and on Iran’s relations with Latin American nations, is absolutely the president’s call.

    I suspect there was no watershed moment at which Fraser decided to ignore the flashing-neon implications of Iran and Hezbollah being all over Latin America, especially when Hezbollah has already been known to enter the US on drug trafficking routes. It has probably been a months-long process of being immersed in the policy thrust of the Obama administration, and of a differing perspective falling silent, as the cost of expressing it goes higher with each passing day.

  3. I didn’t know that 4-star generals had such a crew of civilian advisors. Nor did I know that their jobs were 99.99% political. That’s very interesting – and a little disconcerting too maybe. Anyway, thanks for your analysis.

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