Shadow Government

Obama needs to put brakes on overtures to Chavismo

Even as Venezuela plunges into a constitutional crisis over Hugo Chávez's missed inauguration yesterday, State Department officials evidently think its still an ideal time to continue pressing for a normalization of diplomatic relations with the Venezuelan government, whoever that may be.

Ever since my colleague, former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, disclosed last month (and at Foreign Policy here) that high-ranking department officials had begun discrete talks about exchanging ambassadors with Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro and Venezuelan Organization of American States Ambassador Roy Chaderton in November, department officials have begun to speak openly (here and here) about the effort and have shown no indication that recent events in Venezuela have dampened their enthusiasm.

Indeed, they have even doubled down on it and are now presenting their overtures as a way to get ahead of the post-Chávez curve, given the increasing likelihood that the firebrand populist will never return to power. That way, in the words of the Washington Post, they "can engage Caracas on a variety of concerns the State Department has had about the Venezuelan government's policies."

One wonders then what the rationale was in November for seeking to normalize relations, since Chávez was his usual bombastic self and showed no signs of the severity of his illness. (He soon decamped to Cuba for his reported fourth surgery for cancer and hasn't been seen or heard from since December 8th.)

In any case, the idea of unconditionally restoring diplomatic ties with the Chávez government in November is troubling enough; today, it is simply inexplicable.

As has been widely reported, Chávez missed his inauguration this week, which means, according to the Venezuelan constitution, that his current presidential term has ended. Since he was not sworn in for his new term, power is then turned over to the elected head of the National Assembly. However, the Chávez-packed Supreme Court ruled that he is still president and that his inauguration can be postponed indefinitely. That means the nominal head of government in Venezuela is Chávez's hand-picked vice president and heir, the unelected Nicolas Maduro.

But Venezuela's democratic opposition is protesting this usurpation of the constitutional process and maintaining that the head of government is the head of the legislature, Diosdado Cabello, another Chávez crony. Yet complicating matters further is that both Maduro and Cabello head different factions within Chavismo that will likely vie for power once Chávez is gone.

Is this really the most appealing scenario to attempt to restore diplomatic relations with a country that has been so radicalized, de-institutionalized, and polarized under more than a decade of Hugo Chávez? One thinks not.

No one doubts the administration's concern with Venezuela's alliances with international rogues like Iran and Syria, its complicity with narco-trafficking through its territory, and its unhelpful stance on Colombia's war against narco-terrorism, but to expect any diplomatic progress on those issues while Venezuelans aren't even sure who will be in power when they wake up in the morning is simply folly.

The administration would do better to immediately suspend overtures to Venezuelan officials, allow the uncertain transition process to play out, and support the opposition's calls for an open, transparent, and constitutional resolution to the crisis -- as well as a clean and transparent election when Chávez succumbs to cancer. Moreover, the department will soon have a new Secretary of State, presumably John Kerry. By the time he and his team are in the building the more likely it will be that they have a better understanding of who is in charge in Venezuela, and whether the environment is more inviting to attempt to make real progress with Chávez's successors on those issues that are important to U.S. security.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Does history need a 'Marshall Plan'?

In December 1939, as World War II began to convulse Europe and the public debate accelerated in the United States over whether America would enter the war, the new Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall gave an address to the American Historical Association. Reflecting on the role of history in national security, Marshall observed that "it is to the historian ... that we must turn for the most essential service in determining the public policy relating to national defense." Lest this sound like Marshall was merely flattering his audience of history professors -- we academics are notoriously susceptible to hearing about our own importance, after all -- Marshall then excoriated the assembled historians for writing books that were unduly celebratory of American history, and thus had offered little genuine insight. Specifically, he charged historians with abdication of duty by telling only of America's previous victories in wars, while ignoring the many past mistakes that had unduly prolonged past wars, or left the United States vulnerable and susceptible to defeat. As his nation once again faced the prospect of war unprepared, Marshall worried that "if we are to have a sound organization for war we must first have better school histories and a better technique for teaching history."

Many policymakers today would share Marshall's concern that too few academic historians are producing history that is useful for national security policy. Although to oversimplify the problem, it is now nearly the opposite from Marshall's time. Very little of academic history today focuses on matters of war and diplomacy, and for academic historians a contemporary cardinal sin is to write "celebratory" history (or its related iniquities of "triumphalist" or "Whiggish" history). If anything, many historians are perhaps now gratuitously critical of the American past.

History at its best should of course avoid the twin distortions of either cheerleading or sneering at the past, and instead should work to ascertain the truth about the past in all of its complexities, vanities, and virtues. And while not all fields of history should aspire to the potential seductions of "policy relevance," the responsibilities of citizenship and the realities of the past suggest that history holds rich insights for foreign policy today. General Marshall was not the only one to think so; a pantheon of other Cold War policymakers, such as Kennan, Kissinger, Acheson, Truman, and Eisenhower looked to history as well, as have many of their contemporary successors.

Inspired by the spirit of Marshall's admonition, yesterday the University of Texas-Austin announced the creation of the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft. The Clements Center (which in full disclosure I will direct) will be designed to support teaching and research in diplomatic, military, and international history and its relevance for national security policy. In the coming months we will be announcing a number of programs and initiatives; aspiring graduate students and post-docs especially might want to keep us in mind.

The life and career of the Center's namesake, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Clements, exemplifies an appreciation for history's bearing on statecraft. An avid reader of history, Clements served at the Pentagon from 1973-77 under presidents Nixon and Ford, and he stewarded American defense policy during a perilous period when the U.S. was a diminishing power. Yet mindful of the "long view" that history cultivates, during these years of managing decline, Clements oversaw the development of new weapons platforms such as the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, M-1 Abrams tank, Aegis cruiser, and Tomahawk cruise missile, that would form much of the backbone of American force projection for the next four decades. He also worked with Kissinger and others to recalibrate America's strategic posture in regions such as the Middle East. In our current era of debate over the defense budget and American decline, this is a history that merits attention.