Colombia has a loose-tongued president.
Yesterday, Juan Manuel Santos told us he knew where FARC commander alias Timochenko is hiding, but claimed he’d “think twice” before ordering a shoot-to-kill.
Mr Santos believes Timochenko is essential to the peace talks in Havana and that removing him would spell an end to the dialogues.
The thinking is two-fold.
In the first instance, Santos calculates the negotiating team would label the talks a charade, leave the table and close the door on a once in a generation opportunity for peace.
Secondly, he expects fierce blow-back. The fear is the FARC rank and file rejects the very principle of a negotiated end to the 50 year conflict and “elects” a new leader on a war mandate.
Put it this way, when Timochenko replaced Alfonso Cano at the end of 2011, Santos believed he was someone he could do business with. Timochenko arrives from the political – the more cerebral and less militaristic – wing of the FARC; his departure would see the less ideological, narco-military vultures circle.
Santos understands that peace negotiations need leaders who can do business with each other. The IRA could not abide hardline Margaret Thatcher, while it stumbled along well enough with the more moderate John Major, and finally it “got” Catholic sympathising Tony Blair.
Take Timochenko out of the equation and Santos is back to square one.
So there is logic in the president’s pronouncement that he would err before pulling the trigger?
There may very well be, but why did Mr Santos feel the urge to reveal his hand?
As the election nears Santos’ public appearances are increasingly erratic. There seems a panic in his gaff-prone speeches.
In an attempt to “quedar bien con todos”, to rub along well with everyone, Juan Manuel Santos is trying as best he can to adopt the strategy so expertly deployed by Bill Clinton: triangulation.
But Santos seems unable to play the game, unable to adopt a position that appeals to the left and to the right and forces his opponents into a false move.
Frankly Santos is scoring more own goals, triangulating himself.
Take for example his decision to remove Bogota Mayor Petro from office. This was designed as a flirtatious wink to those on the right, but it was a move that was rejected and he ended up losing credibility with his base (if that exists). Realizing his error, Santos made the situation worse this Tuesday when he said he would reinstate Petro if order to do so by a high court judge.
We are left with the sensation that Santos, while perhaps a decent technocrat, is not a natural politician.
It is time Mr Santos’ advisers step in, lest he be known as the president “more triangulated against than triangulating”. As for Timochenko. He would do well to tell his troops to hurry up and negotiate an end to this pointless conflict.