Shadow Government

Ukraine Drama Brings Out Leading Actors' True Colors

The world's response to Ukraine's 2014 revolution is a useful snapshot of the dominant international trends of our time -- including the erosion of the vigor of the West and the determination of our adversaries to secure advantage amidst transatlantic tepidness. Here is a top five list of how key players' responses to the crisis illuminate a dangerous lack of Western fortitude at a time of historic opportunity.

1) President Obama

A piece in Tuesday's New York Times by Peter Baker contrasts George W. Bush's embrace of the Orange Revolution in 2004 with President Obama's "clinical detachment" a decade later. "Rather than an opportunity to spread freedom in a part of the world long plagued by corruption and oppression, Mr. Obama sees Ukraine's crisis as a problem to be managed," writes Baker. The President is more "wary" of the "instability" it could pose than willing to lean forward to secure the free and independent Ukraine that has been a goal of every American president since 1991. Yet as in Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, East Asia, and elsewhere, U.S. disengagement is producing exactly the instability we fear.

2) Susan Rice

In the Washington Post this week, Richard Cohen laments "Susan Rice and the retreat of American power." On Sunday morning TV, the national security advisor offered nothing more than "airy but prudent generalization[s]" about one of the more consequential events in wider Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Cohen argues that Ukraine, like Syria, is a metaphor for the broader lack of purpose of American policy under Rice and Obama. "An increasingly messy world is looking for guidance. But not only does the United States refuse to be its policeman, it won't even be its hall monitor."

3) The European Union

Europe's reluctance to get in the arena in Ukraine led to this colorful judgment by a leading U.S. diplomat. She might also have noted that Ukraine is a lot closer to Europe than it is to the United States. Individual European leaders like Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt have long appreciated the stakes in Ukraine and pushed Europe hard to shape the country's future trajectory. But in asking "Has the West Already Lost Ukraine?" only days after former President Yanukovych's downfall, Polish intellectual Slawomir Sierakowski argues that the European Union is more "softy power" than "soft power" and must have a policy more robust than simply "wait[ing] for pro-Western forces to emerge."

4) Congressional confirmation politics

Leaders like Senator John McCain are acting presidential in their outreach to Ukrainian leaders, warnings against Russian military interference, and support for a democratic outcome in Kiev. At the same time, executive branch nominees who should be leading the administration's response, including the nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski, are stuck in confirmation limbo. As a bipartisan group of experts and former officials wrote to the Senate Majority Leader in December, "The extended vacancy...risks casting doubt on the United States' commitment and capacity to promote human rights and democratic values around the world. The absence of senior leaders on human rights inside the U.S. government handicaps our diplomacy in crucial arenas like ...Ukraine." Malinowski was nominated last summer, sailed through his confirmation hearing, and was unanimously voted out of committee. It is time to confirm him - and put him to work on Ukraine (and Syria).

5) The "appease Russia" crowd

There are good reasons to be careful not to rush NATO forces into Ukraine or set up American bases there. But strategic prudence need not mean bending to the will of an authoritarian regime in Moscow whose meddling has done so much to prevent Ukraine from embracing its European vocation. Typical is the argument of former British ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton, who in the Financial Times belittles those warning of the "dark fantasy" of a Russian military incursion into Ukraine. He even absolves Moscow of responsibility for its brazen invasion of Georgia in 2008 -- which he likens, extraordinarily, to Britain's war to recapture control of the Falkland Islands from the Argentine junta in 1982. Britain before has been faced with charming but ruthless dictators determined to secure geopolitical objectives at any cost. But surely the "peace in our time" school of diplomacy should have gone out of fashion by now.


Shadow Government

A Ukrainian Solution for Venezuela

There are many differences between the popular uprisings in Ukraine and those in Venezuela, but similarities exist. In each, a government that once won an election squandered its legitimacy through a combination of widespread abuse, corruption, and incompetence. Now that an encouraging solution has been ostensibly found in Kiev, one way in which that result was reached may hold the key for a similar end to the crisis in Caracas.

According to U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken (interviewed on Feb. 21 by Jake Tapper of CNN), in the days prior to the Ukraine breakthrough the United States finally joined the European Union in announcing sanctions. The U.S. undertook to "revoke the visas of officials and oligarchs" supportive of the corrupt, authoritarian President Viktor Yanukovych and seize their financial holdings in the U.S. and Europe. This is how the Wall Street Journal reported it:  "After the worst clashes on Thursday, the U.S. and E.U., after weeks of dithering, imposed sanctions. Cracks in the regime opened wide enough to make Friday's deal possible." 

Why the U.S. took so long to use this low-cost yet immensely effective tool is a mystery.  Anyone who has had the privilege of serving as a U.S. ambassador knows that granting or denying U.S. visas is one of the most powerful -- and sensitive -- instruments an embassy has.  If an embassy wants to make a friend quickly, or lose one even faster, just grant or deny entry to the U.S. to a self-important local official or tycoon.

The same threat that apparently helped steer the Ukraine crisis toward a happy ending (at least for most Ukrainians, the U.S. and the West, if not for Vladimir Putin) can be applied to Venezuela. In response to the violent repression of peaceful demonstrations by the Socialist government of Nicolas Maduro, the U.S. should quietly notify Venezuela's generals and oligarchs that if the violence against unarmed civilians continues, or if the government refuses to negotiate with the opposition and release all political detainees, they and their families will have their U.S. visas revoked and their overseas financial holdings frozen.

It will come as a surprise to many Americans that on many Friday afternoons Florida airports see a rush of jets arriving from "revolutionary" Venezuela, carrying the families, friends, and business associates of that country's political, military and economic elite -- and in many cases, the potentates themselves: the military officers and civilian ministers of government. 

The "oligarchs" are the individuals that enable the authoritarian regimes to remain in power.  In many cases they are the regime's officials themselves. They are motivated entirely by self-interest and use populist ideology and rhetoric as a cover for their thievery. It is immoral enough that they are destroying entire countries such as Ukraine or Venezuela, but if we allow them to enjoy the fruits of their illicit business in our country, then we are complicit in their corruption.

Early in Chavez's "Bolivarian" revolution, ordinary Venezuelans began calling this privileged class "Boligarchs" a contraction of "Bolivarian Oligarchs," those who became unimaginably rich through graft or trafficking in government contracts that they received without competition and for which they paid illegal bribes to the grantors.

The Boligarchs prefer South Florida's beaches, hotels, restaurants and especially high-end shopping districts to those of their own land. The reasons are clear: The U.S. is safe, not like the cities of Venezuela that the revolution has made treacherous through the demolition of the rule of law. And in U.S. stores they can find all the products that are no longer available in Venezuela, such as bread, milk, and chicken, or those that they like to take back to Venezuela, such as gold-plated mobile phones. Moreover, in the U.S. there is less of a chance they will be recognized as the "new class" of exploiters who has looted their nation, and are therefore less likely to be insulted by passers-by.

The irony of spending their weekends and vacations in the U.S., the "empire" that their government constantly insults escapes these Boligarchs. Even if conscious of the paradox, however, they are so used to the good life in Venezuela that they figure theirs is a universal privilege they have earned as a result of holding exalted positions, and not of whether they reached them through bribery, duplicity, monopoly power, or the unexplained disappearance or a rival. 

Many of them have acquired luxurious properties in the US: lavish mansions, enormous yachts and fleets of airplanes. They have also invested in legitimate businesses to launder their ill-gotten money, just as other organized crimes families did before them. 

Revocation of U.S. visas is a clean, quick remedy to the conundrum of what to do about the new authoritarians in Latin America (and elsewhere). The executive authority rests in section 212 of the Immigration and Nationalities Act: in Presidential Proclamation 7750, also known as the "anti-kleptocracy resolution";  in the Patriot Act, and in other laws. It has been used before numerous times, but not sufficiently in recent years.

The U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, Homeland Security, and many agencies such as CIA, DEA, FBI, SEC, IRS, and others have names and data on these individuals.  All it will take to implement this policy beyond Ukraine is political will.

Otto J. Reich is a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, assistant secretary of state and senior staff member of the National Security Council.