Shadow Government

Time for Congress to Act on Venezuela

With popular demonstrations across Venezuela turning into the latest crisis for chavismo, it is time to pronounce the Obama administration's policy toward Venezuela an unmitigated failure. The capstone was Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's absurd call this weekend for negotiations with the United States even as his government was cracking down on unarmed protestors. 

Of course it was meant as a diversion, but for the embattled Maduro even to pretend he can blow the dog whistle and the State Department will fall immediately into line reveals his utter contempt for the administration's accommodationist policy towards his country. We need an entirely new approach.

Almost one year after the death of strongman Hugo Chávez, the movement he founded is reeling. Nationwide protests against rampant street crime, shortages of basic consumer goods, and political polarization have left half a dozen Venezuelans dead, many more wounded, and even more jailed. Leading opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez has been imprisoned on a military base under the preposterous charge of training "gangs of youth" to lead a coup against the government.  

The instability in the streets was entirely predictable; Venezuela under chavismo has been the longest train wreck in history. Yet, all the signs that the country has been headed for a meltdown have been studiously ignored by the Obama administration.  Instead, it has bent over backwards to avoid any confrontation with the Maduro government, even as it became more repressive and grew closer to U.S. adversaries Iran and Cuba.

Just two months ago, despite the spiraling conditions in Venezuela, Secretary of State John Kerry told the Miami Herald that he was prepared to restart bilateral talks with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua proposed last June. Those talks never got off the ground after Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats, including the chargé (the U.S. has no ambassador in Caracas), who he accused of trying to destabilize his government. (Three more U.S. diplomats were expelled  last week; after a decade of expulsions, it is a wonder there are any left to expel.)

Undaunted, Secretary Kerry told the Herald, "We are ready and willing, and we are open to improving that relationship [with Venezuela]," and that, "we've been disappointed that the Maduro government has not been as ready to move with us and to engage, and that it seems to take more pleasure in perpetuating the sort of differences that we don't think really exist."  For good measure, he added, "The United States has not been involved in one (single) effort to deal negatively with the Maduro government."

And the result has been...? A defiant Maduro threatening to impose martial law and release "all of the military force of the country" against the opposition. 

From the administration's standpoint, no doubt their goal all along was to keep a low profile so as not to play the foil for the Maduro government and otherwise overshadow the democratic opposition's grievances. Additionally, they may have thought that at a less active U.S. approach would allow regional heavyweights such as Brazil to play the moderating role. The result has been failure: Maduro still calls the opposition lackeys of Washington, mocks U.S. diplomatic entreaties, and no other regional country has stepped up to help resolve the crisis.

There is a vacuum of leadership in Washington on Venezuela and Congress needs to fill it. It is time for a more pro-active role in U.S. policy in support of the Venezuelan people. Indeed, there is no shortage of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress who are not confused on the issue and what is important to U.S. interests. Not only do Venezuelans demonstrating in the street need to know that they have support and solidarity from abroad - bring some to Washington to testify - but Congress also has the power to levy sanctions should the Maduro government continue to assault and persecute its critics.  Now is not the time for policy nuance and misdirection; it is time for bold action that finally holds the Venezuelan government accountable for its abuses and lawlessness.


Shadow Government

Good For President Obama, Good for U.S.-Chinese Relations

I am glad to see that President Obama resisted Chinese pressure and met with the Dalai Lama at the White House. Since we at Shadow Government (meaning my wingman Will Inboden) did not shrink from dinging the White House when they succumbed to Chinese pressure in the past, it is only fair (and balanced!) to praise them when they stand firm.

There is still lots more the White House should be doing to develop a coherent American grand strategy that properly incorporates interests based on moral values and interests based on material values. And there is more that needs to be done to develop a coherent strategy for meeting the challenge and opportunity of China as an emerging great power.

But let's leave those points for another day and just observe that President Obama is right to meet with the Dalai Lama. To be sure, no one is entitled to a meeting with the president. That is one of the scarcest resources the White House must steward, and so it is wrong for anyone, including a leader as celebrated as the Dalai Lama, to presume on the president's time. Yet some people have a better claim than others. President Obama's predecessors saw the value of meeting with the Dalai Lama from time to time and it is good that Obama sees it, too.

Regardless, we can all agree with the following principle: China should not get a veto over who the president of the United States gets to see.

As expected, the Beijing regime has protested about U.S. undue interference in domestic politics -- as if the Chinese objection to the president's daily calendar is not undue interference in domestic politics. There is always a chance that more serious repercussions will ensue, and it is reasonable for the president's staff to have factored that into the calculus when making arrangements for this meeting. But such repercussions are unlikely, and they will become progressively unlikely when these types of meetings are routinized. When it is clear that Chinese protests will not stop the president of the United States from meeting with someone he deems it worthwhile to meet with, the protests will likely dwindle to the formulaic sort. [Ed. -- you mean of the formulaic sort that you Shadow Government bloggers resort to from time to time? Uhhhm, no comment]

Actually, if China wants to really "retaliate" it should invite a domestic critic of President Obama, perhaps even someone who believes that President Obama has abused his governmental power to infringe upon human rights. As interesting as it would be to sit in on a meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama, imagine what it would be like to sit in a meeting between President Xi Jinping and the leader of one of those Tea Party groups that received the suspicious IRS audits? A China that comfortable talking about political liberty would be something to behold.

By meeting with the Dalai Lama, President Obama restores some balance in his dealings with China and that is a praiseworthy development. Kudos to the White House for pulling this off.