Shadow Government

Obama Should Do Nothing to Rescue Chavismo

Mixed signals in recent days by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are helping embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to deflect attention away from the consequences of his misrule. With popular street protests across the country showing no signs of abating, the government of the late Hugo Chávez's successor appears to have no answers as to how to quell the discontent -- that is, beyond unleashing the blunt force of government-sponsored paramilitary gangs against the protesters.

Social media has been inundated with images of the violence being perpetrated against Venezuelan civilians. In response, Kerry has issued two formal statements (here and here), the second better than the first. In the second, he stated, "The government's use of force and judicial intimidation against citizens and political figures, who are exercising a legitimate right to protest, is unacceptable and will only increase the likelihood of violence. I call on the Venezuelan government to step back from its efforts to stifle dissent through force and respect basic human rights."

Yet a few days later on MSNBC, Kerry inexplicably muddled that message by changing the topic to the subject of the U.S.-Venezuela bilateral relationship, saying, "We have emphasized that we are looking to improve the relationship; we would like to see change.... This tension between our countries has gone on for too long in our view, but we are not going to sit around and be blamed for things we have never done."

Naturally, desperate to change the subject from barricades and bloody citizens in the streets, Maduro quickly pounced. He used a Feb. 26 national press conference to ostentatiously welcome Kerry's comments: "I salute here today the response of Secretary of State John Kerry. I propose a new stage in relations with the United States, and let us go together in search of that new era, without any issues." He also proposed that the two countries set up commissions to begin immediate talks.

Of course, the idea of a grandiose U.S.-Venezuela rapprochement in the middle of the biggest crisis for Chavismo in more than a decade passes no laugh test. But for a leader as isolated and weak as Maduro, such theatrics allow him to portray an image of calm and in control -- and agreeable. Suffice it to say, it is difficult to understand how making Maduro's life any easier serves U.S. interests.

Barack Obama's administration needs to decide what its position is regarding the current crisis in Venezuela. Does it support the legitimate aspirations of millions of Venezuelans for better lives and the full respect of their government? Or does it view the protests as little more than a troublesome workaround to developing a normal relationship with the Maduro government?

One would certainly hope it is the former. And the administration has the perfect opportunity early next week, when the Organization of American States has scheduled a special session to discuss the crisis in Venezuela (despite the Maduro government's best efforts to block the meeting).

In any case, what the administration should not do is anything -- symbolically or practically -- that helps a repressive, political polarizing, and destabilizing government stay in power. Ideally, the administration would find ways to ramp up the pressure against the Maduro government by raising the costs of continued violent actions against its people. This could be done by freezing Venezuelan assets in the United States, pulling visas from high-ranking officials, and holding human rights abusers accountable before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

As I wrote earlier this week, now is not the time for diplomatic feints and nods. A government that has singularly devoted itself to upsetting the regional consensus on behalf of democracy and human rights for the past decade is on the brink of collapse. We should not help it save itself.

Photo: LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

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.