Shadow Government

Is the U.S. Ready for a Venezuelan Meltdown?

As Republicans and Democrats continue their standoff in Washington, developments overseas directly affecting U.S. security interests continue apace. Think of multiple boulders tumbling down a hill. Let's just hope a distracted Uncle Sam isn't clobbered by one of them.

In Venezuela, the United States' fourth-largest supplier of crude oil and 14th-largest trading partner, conditions are spiraling from bad to worse. The late Hugo Chávez's hapless successor, President Nicolás Maduro, has requested emergency decree powers, which he says are needed to save an economy in free-fall -- including an inflation rate among the world's highest, collapsing public services, and shortages of basic goods such as milk, meat, and toilet paper. This, in a country sitting atop perhaps the largest reserves of crude oil on the globe.

Until now, Maduro has become little more than a laughingstock since claiming a suspicious victory over challenger Henrique Capriles in the April election following Chávez's death. Obsessed with blaming others for Venezuela's travails, he has announced some 13 (and counting) conspiracies against his government, plus four assassination "plots." That strategy has run its course, however; the time for fun and games is clearly over.

Not even reported annual oil revenues of $100 billion has been enough to paper over an inflation rate of 49 percent, a scarcity index of 20 percent, the dollar trading on the black market at seven times the official rate, wanton corruption, electrical blackouts, and horrendous street crime. 

The situation is simply not sustainable -- and Maduro has neither solutions nor much room to maneuver. His Cuban minders are insisting that he not only hold the line, but that he double down on command economy policies. 

Yet the key dynamic in Venezuela today is not between the government and the opposition, but within the regime itself. That's because there is no shortage of powerful figures in the government who continue to proudly identify with Chávez's movement, but who clearly recognize that the country is disintegrating and that Maduro's incompetence is making matters worse. Many of them as well, especially in the military, have always resented the heavy Cuban presence at the top echelons of civilian decision-making. It will fall to these forces to pick up the pieces when Maduro's mismanagement finally overwhelms him.

Barack Obama's administration cannot be caught flat-footed in the event of a change in leadership in Venezuela. The State Department spent the last six months doing everything it could to normalize relations with the Maduro government, but the recent expulsion of the U.S. chargé d'affaires (the ambassador was expelled long ago) has brought that effort to an ignominious end. Now, they need quite a different plan, one that seeks to help guide a peaceful transition to a post-Maduro government less hostile to the United States. If one thing is certain, Russia, China, Iran, and Cuba -- all heavily vested in the regime's radical wing -- are not about to stand idly by and let events play out.

Of course, there is always a chance that Maduro can muddle through (oil is an excellent lubricant), but that is a risky bet. A key date ahead is Dec. 8, when Venezuela is supposed to hold municipal elections. Many see those elections as a referendum on Maduro's presidency. If the ruling party does well, it may buy Maduro time. If not, hold on tight.

A Venezuelan transition will provide significant opportunities for a welcome course correction in bolstering U.S. security interests in the region. Numerous bad actors believe they hit the mother lode in chavismo and have profited immensely, at the expense of the U.S. interests. Either way, if a post-Maduro government is interested in a less toxic relationship with Washington or not, the United States will have new leverage. U.S. interests lie in nothing less than the expulsion of the Cubans, the Iranians, and the drug cartels from Venezuela. If a new leadership in Venezuela seeks a future sans such nefarious associations, the Venezuelan people and their historical friends in the United States stand to benefit.

Photo: LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

How to Better Navigate the Coming Civil-Military Challenges

The news that Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter is stepping down is unwelcome for those of us who are concerned about the health of civil-military relations in Barack Obama's administration. No one is indispensable, but Carter has earned an unusual amount of respect on both sides of the partisan aisle and across the uniformed divide. (Full disclosure: Way back in the days of the Cold War, Carter was on my dissertation committee, which surely disposes me in his favor, though it probably doesn't make him very sympathetic to me!)

I believe that Carter would have been a good secretary of defense, and I think he has helped Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel do better than was feared, especially after Hagel's rocky confirmation. I hope that he is replaced by someone who can similarly command respect from Democrats and Republicans, and from civilians and the military, for we appear to be heading into rocky civil-military waters.

Some have said we have already entered.

A few weeks ago, Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, reviewed the civil-military debate over Syria and concluded: "civil-military relations have not been this tense and precarious since the end of the Cold War." Since that period saw the conflict over "don't ask, don't tell" (not to mention the prevalent military contempt for President Bill Clinton early in his tenure) and the Rumsfeld-era civil-military friction, Zenko's assertion is a dramatic one.

The evidence Zenko cited included reports that the military is unhappy with poor White House planning on Syria and was generally reluctant to do the strikes Obama was threatening. Retired Gen. Robert Scales claimed explicitly that he was channeling "the overwhelming opinion of serving [military] professionals" when he said that they were embarrassed by the "amateurism" of the Obama administration in the Syria episode. Zenko also discussed the doubts, primarily from congressional Republicans, about the way the administration handled the Benghazi debacle.

Curiously, Zenko left off what is arguably the most important driver of civil-military tensions, now and especially going forward: the persistent fiscal crisis that has resulted in sequestration.

Sequestration was designed to be something so horrible that it never would be implemented. Almost everyone in the Defense Department, whether in or out of uniform, still views it that way. But there is a growing sense that the White House, and the commander in chief in particular, has come to view the first round of sequestration as tolerable. Worse, the president's refusal to negotiate with Republicans has raised fears that perhaps he is willing to prolong sequestration, at least insofar as it applies to the Defense Department.

This is a real civil-military problem -- much more consequential than the Obama administration's odd decision to prevent World War II veterans from visiting their open-air monument as a way of ratcheting up pressure on Republicans. Harassing wheelchair vets makes for compelling television, but imposing arbitrary cuts on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars across the FYDP undermines national security. There is no question which hurts civil-military relations more.

Restoring the lost funding would go a long way to improving civil-military relations, but that is not plausible. What, short of that, could the administration do?

First, the Obama administration should seek a deal that would give the Defense Department greater flexibility in managing the cuts. Republicans are willing to grant that, but the Obama administration has been unwilling to accept it unless it can get similar flexibility for favored domestic programs. In today's partisan climate, we may not be able to get such a grand bargain. Let's take the incremental improvements on offer and build out from there.

Second, if the administration will not provide the resources its strategy requires, it must issue a new strategy that is viable at the funding levels that are achievable. The prevailing strategic guidance for the U.S. military is the one Obama issued in January 2012. I had my quibbles with it at the time, but in retrospect it was better than the absence of guidance that prevails right now. Let us be clear: That strategy was designed to accommodate the deep cuts Obama ordered before the sequester took effect. The administration claimed the strategy would be viable, provided there were no further cuts. None. Since then, the sequester has taken effect, with no relief in sight. Worse, another round of sequestration could be looming. There is simply no way that the old strategy could be viable in a post-sequester environment. The administration has to come to terms with this, and do so candidly.

Third, while the president is free to decide issues of policy irrespective of the advice he receives from the military, he should take greater pains not to misrepresent what that advice actually is. As far as civil-military relations go, this was Obama's biggest foul in the Syria episode. When Obama decided to reverse course and delay the planned airstrikes, he explicitly claimed that Gen. Martin Dempsey had told him the delay would not matter. Obama and his White House staff went on at some length to justify the decision in Dempsey's counsel, but in doing so they fundamentally misrepresented the content of Dempsey's advice, as Dempsey's subsequent congressional testimony makes clear (see also here). The president's prerogative to overrule his generals is a precious aspect of civilian control. But it will lead to civil-military conflict when the military believes that civilians are not just choosing to go in a direction other than what the military advises, but are actively misleading others about what that advice was in the first place. The more budget cuts require civilians to make painful choices across military programs and choose between competing military counsels, the more important preserving this principle, and all its associated obligations on civilians, will become.

And, finally, the Obama administration should nominate someone who commands respect across partisan and civil-military divides to be the next deputy secretary of defense. That person will have their hands full.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images