Shadow Government

How Not to Treat the Neighborhood Bully

Trying to track the course of U.S. policy toward Venezuela is enough to give one whiplash. Where a few weeks ago Barack Obama's administration appeared to take a principled stand behind opposition protests asserting that this April's presidential election to elect Hugo Chávez's successor was stolen, today it seems to have tossed the opposition overboard as it seeks to normalize relations with the disputed government of Nicolás Maduro.

Even as opposition leader Henrique Capriles has been traveling to regional capitals seeking support for his campaign for a clean election, someone at the State Department evidently thought it was perfect timing for a smiling, handshaking photo op between Secretary of State John Kerry and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua at last week's Organization of American States meeting in Guatemala.

Certainly it would be understandable if a U.S.-Venezuelan rapprochement was the product of some identifiable change in that government's behavior -- some nod to the legitimacy of the opposition's complaints, maybe a commitment to stop berating the United States and friendly countries, or perhaps even a public pledge to finally cooperate on counternarcotics policy. Yet none of this has occurred.

Instead, this is what we have seen from the Maduro government in the last few months:

Not exactly what you would call a charm offensive.

Indeed, the only thing we have seen from the Maduro government since its tainted victory is an accelerated offensive to replace the Castro regime as the bully in the Latin American neighborhood, using threats both explicit and implicit to intimidate anyone daring to criticize its anti-democratic actions.

Rewarding bad behavior is no way to treat a bully. Moreover, one does not have to be Bismarck to recognize that indulgence of belligerent actions among states only encourages more aberrant behavior.

Most frustrating is that, unlike Chávez, Maduro's vitriol and bombast are a reflection of his weakness, not his strength. Clearly, he is in over his head, commands no respect at home, has disputed legitimacy, and is manifestly incapable of managing the socioeconomic disaster bequeathed by Chávez. In such a scenario, he desperately needs U.S. recognition of his regime, and it is now being handed to him on a silver platter, with no apparent concessions being demanded of him.

That isn't statesmanship; it's an abdication of it. Maduro and his Cuban minders are avowed enemies of the United States. Throwing them a "lifeline" -- as the Washington Post put it in a blistering editorial -- with some wooly hope that they will see the error of their ways will only succeed in inviting an even worse situation for U.S. interests than the one we are confronting now.

JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Suffice it to say

We are to arm the rebels in Syria. So sayeth the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications yesterday. The Obama administration has satisfied itself the intelligence is reliable that the Assad government did in several instances use chemical weapons against its own population. President Obama set a red line, Bashar al-Assad crossed it, and now American credibility is at stake, so the administration must finally do something.

It's bad policy to go to war to preserve American credibility -- much less any particular president's credibility. As a general rule, if you have to fight a duel to defend a lady's honor, she's probably already compromised it. And -- much as we bridle to hear it -- in the eyes of much of the world, American credibility is always in doubt. Even in the canonical cases, it looks much different to others: Europeans recall how much of World War II we sat out, as well as our eventual joining. We are an unpredictable ally, even an unreliable one to many of our partners.

Moreover, the argument has something of a domino theory feel to it: We must defend American credibility here, otherwise we won't have it over there. It brings to mind the scene in the anti-war movie Gallipoli in which two young soldiers are explaining World War I to a hobo in the Australian outback. "If we don't stop the Kaiser in Europe, he could get all this," the soldier explains as the camera pans around hundreds of unpopulated miles in every direction.

America should go to war only when the war itself merits it. If we need credibility for managing the Iranian nuclear program, we're going to have to earn it on the basis of countering the Iranian nuclear program. If the atrocities of the Syrian government against its own people, the provocations for a wider regional war, deepening sectarian divide across the Middle East, and tottering of American allies under the weight of refugees demands credible policies, we are not going to bluff our way to changing the Assad government's behavior because we've done what we said we would do elsewhere.

Syria does merit going to war. Bashar al-Assad is a butcher, a major supporter of terrorism, a threat to our allies and our interests in the Middle East. That Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia are keeping him in power argues for, not against, U.S. intervention. The Syrian opposition is fractious and increasingly beholden to jihadists; the longer this conflict drags on, the more fractious rebels will become and the most beholden they will be to the forces that are assisting their fight.

The White House may resent being pulled into the conflict, but that is a problem of the president's own making. He declared that Assad must go. He set the red line on chemical weapons use. As with so much else in Obama administration foreign policy, they are tripped up on the conflict between their lofty statements of intent and their unwillingness to act.

In announcing the new policy, the deputy national security advisor said that in light of Assad's forces having crossed President Obama's "red line" against using chemical weapons, we would commence providing military assistance to the Syrian rebels. "Suffice it to say this is going to be different in both scope and scale," Rhodes said of the new assistance. But he did not say what that new scope and scale of assistance would entail. He did say what it would not entail: enactment of a no-fly zone or involvement of U.S. troops. Others in the administration tell journalists the lethal assistance will consist of small arms and ammunition.

Before Hezbollah fighters joined in on the regime side, most analysts considered the major regime advantage to be airborne firepower. The regime has heavy weapons and the rebels do not; it has been sufficient to create a stalemate. As the war dragged on, jihadists flowed into rebel ranks, improving their fighting power, and arms flowed into regime stockpiles, improving their firepower. As the fall of Qusayr shows, the regime is gaining ground. 

Rhodes said our arms shipments would be "responsive to the needs" expressed by the rebel command. General Idriss, in charge of the rebel forces, has openly and repeatedly requested anti-tank missiles and shoulder-fired rockets to shoot down the aircraft that the Assad regime is using against civilians. The rebels have also requested a no-fly zone to level the fighting field. The Obama administration will be responsive to their needs by providing small arms and ammunition. So, in fact, the rebels' needs have very little to do with the assistance the Obama administration has decided to provide.

The Obama administration continues to labor under the illusion that bold statements are an adequate deterrent. They have -- again -- made a hortatory commitment and will allow time to lag before determining whether to proceed with doing anything. They have -- again -- made the choice to do just enough to keep the rebels fighting, but not enough to help them win. Suffice it to say, this policy will once again be too little too late. And the American credibility it is designed to bolster will be further degraded.

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images