Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Pep-rally Venezuela policy

The thrust of President Trump’s Venezuela speech wasn’t a surprise, but it was still jarring to see him talk about freedom abroad as if he had never spoken about his “America First” disinterest in how other countries govern themselves, about being “in love” with Kim Jong Un, about the money Saudi Arabia invests here (when asked about a Saudi murder of a U.S. resident journalist), about Putin’s poll ratings and leadership qualities, about his warm personal relations with a Chinese premier who deals with the Uighur minority through mass jailing and re-education.

But as ever with President Trump, he has a way of telling you what is foremost on his mind, and yesterday it was the electoral benefit of his outrage about Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Votes, votes, and votes.

In the only non-partisan reference of the day, he thanked FIU President Mark Rosenberg for hosting his partisan event. Democratic elected officials were excluded, including the Congresswoman in whose district the speech occurred. Supportive elected officials were praised, all Republicans. Senator Scott used his remarks idiotically to bash Democrats for wanting to bring socialism to America. The President hailed Venezuelan Doral, Nicaraguan Sweetwater, and Cuban Miami. The format was that of hundreds of Trump campaign rallies, right down to the recessional, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

The crowd went nuts, so he got the politics right. But does the Administration’s Venezuela effort work as a foreign policy strategy?

If the first test of strategy is to set a clear objective, it passes with flying colors: Maduro must go. The agreement of 50 other governments on Trump’s central contention – that Maduro’s electoral and constitutional shenanigans forfeit his legitimacy – is a plus.

From there, things get murky.

For starters, there is no visible alignment of ends and means. For Maduro to go, the military has to flip. To achieve that, we have exhortations (patriotism) and threats (military leaders are “risking their lives” by sticking with Maduro and stand to “lose everything”).

To force the issue, we have the most novel use of emergency assistance ever devised: tons of aid dangled at the border to inspire Venezuelan citizens and military officers to depose their government.

As the aid piles up, Senator Rubio and Administration officials (especially those appearing in Spanish-language media) declare daily that it will absolutely enter Venezuela next Saturday. They do not say how, but interim Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó now tweets that on that day, Venezuelans will bring it in and distribute it in “every province” of a country the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined. His ends and means are not aligned either, but he has an action plan and we will see on Saturday if it works.

And indeed it might. Aided by Maduro, Venezuela’s opposition is united and enjoys massive support. If the military command flips, it would not be the first Latin American military institution to determine that its national defense duty lies in facilitating a change in political leadership. Foreign intelligence agencies may have inducements.

But so much could go wrong. No significant military element has switched allegiance – and unless that changes, Saturday is set up to be a day of confrontation. There could be a simple standoff at the border, but if there is violence there will be calls for military intervention. Guaidó has all but called for it and the Venezuelan Supreme Court (operating from abroad) has authorized it explicitly. Those who cheered yesterday’s speech would surely welcome a “humanitarian corridor” protected by U.S. troops. President Trump has warned against any harm to Guaidó or his political allies. Legal foundations for military action have been set, and Saturday could provide the political impetus.

With or without foreign troops, success for Guaidó will require the military command, the rank and file, and all police and irregular forces at once to turn away from Maduro. Some may disband; the rest must all work effectively and immediately to preserve order. If you don’t like the odds of such a neat, seamless change, then you don’t want to imagine the implications for U.S. troops operating amid scarcity, latent violence, and a crisis of authority.

If February 23 passes with Maduro still standing and no military action, the Administration will be left with its maximalist objectives supported by the same threats and exhortations that have not worked so far. Venezuelan officers seem not to be convinced by the assurances coming from Guaidó and Trump, perhaps because no one can offer to drop all U.S. drug trafficking charges. Conditions inside Venezuela will worsen, and the increasing bite of U.S. sanctions will start to give Washington a share of responsibility that President Trump and Senator Rubio will neither recognize nor accept. As time passes, governments now allied with the Trump effort will lose their stomach for tactics that add to Venezuelans’ woes, and they will look for negotiated solutions that Washington opposes. Floridians whose votes matter to the President will press for stronger action, and neither they nor the President’s advisors will be troubled by extended economic sanctions.

In sum, a long waiting game would be hell for Maduro and difficult for Trump too, as it becomes clear that endless sanctions are bad strategy and bad politics. The only way to bridge the gap between ends and means will be escalation, but those options are likely to be distasteful to a President who decried “foolish wars” to a national audience weeks ago. In time, Venezuela could generate national media coverage that would make him less happy about great headlines in Miami-Dade. Long-haul strategies are great if you are in a position of strength, time is on your side, and your leader’s commitment is true.

One prays for a good, fast outcome for Venezuela, but it is hard to imagine such an outcome except in prayer. Which leads to a final point on strategy: given the challenges, the President’s partisan approach is a strategic blunder. The White House did more than exclude Democrats from yesterday’s rally – it made clear that it wants no part of them in the Venezuela policy, and it tries to paint them as would-be Maduros to win votes (presumably because of their ideas about providing health care to poor people). Foreign publics will see a campaign ploy, not a genuine foreign policy effort. Allies will be more inclined to peel away. If G.I.’s are deployed, they will know that their country is divided at the outset. And future difficulties or failures will be Trump’s alone. Apparently there is no one in the White House to argue that bipartisan foreign policy is at once a positive value and a source of political strength.

What does this mean for Cuba? The writing is already on the wall with regard to new sanctions, and yesterday’s speech shows that politics will be the guide. New U.S. actions will have no international support, and will have nothing to do with the views of a President who was exploring for Cuba business opportunities not long ago. Wait for the next rally at FIU.

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