Churchill presents a wonderful metaphor, inspired by Edmund Burke, of the importance of consistency in leadership. He describes the ship of state, buffeted by winds, tacking left and right, from policy to policy, but always heading toward a main point in the distance. Lesson: circumstances call for adjustments, so long as principles remain firm.
It’s unlikely that the Obama administration administration uses Churchill as a foreign policy touchstone for much of anything. Consider the battling inconsistencies of purpose and policy in the current administration’s dealings with Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro.
President Obama recently signed an executive order placing economic and travel sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials accused of committing human rights violations. These sanctions -- predictably decried by Maduro as imperialistic in thrust -- are simply symbolic in nature. In fact, were it not for the inclusion of a line classifying the actions of the Maduro regime as an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” one might be forgiven for accusing our current administration of taking a rather soft approach to chastising an authoritarian regime.
Tuesday, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee session on the “Deepening Political and Economic Crisis in Venezuela,” repeated exhortations were made by State and Treasury Department officials, along with members of the committee, to trust that current sanctions were aimed specifically at the Maduro regime, not the Venezuelan people. John E. Smith, Director of Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, sounded a representative refrain: “To be clear, these sanctions are not aimed against the country of Venezuela.” The assertions of the committee would have been unnecessary if the Obama administration had acted with greater consistency toward Maduro from the beginning. As Mr. Smith pointed out, the United States “remain[s] Venezuela’s primary trading partner and maintain[s] financial ties to Venezuela.” This dual picture of the United States as benefactor and punisher provides Maduro the cover to paint the United States as controlling and vindictive to his Latin American neighbors.
A more consistent policy on behalf of the Obama administration would indicate to Maduro -- and interested observers in the Middle East -- the seriousness with which the current administration professes to treat human rights violations, and the quick resolve that should always follow on the heels of noble rhetoric. If, as Smith noted, the economic inter-dependence between Venezuela and the United States gives us “leverage,” to use the en vogue term, let America use it. There is no reason to be cowed by a disparaging advertisement in the New York Times or the usual cacophony of tin pot regimes that have recently provided rhetorical assistance to Maduro. Obama has, for various reasons, neglected a relationship with Central and South America. Meanwhile, China and Russia have taken the opportunity to set up shop. More worrisome is the evidence—detailed in part in yesterday’s hearing—that Iran is making significant inroads in the region.
As we keep eye on Maduro’s more actionable responses to U.S. policy, the most important set of analysis, Santiago Canton, Executive Director, RFK Partners for Human Rights (and Senate committee participant), recently delineated, should center on the loyalty of the Venezuelan military and the regional reaction to warming U.S. relations with Cuba. As Mr. Canton noted, if the U.S. succeeds in liberalizing Cuba, “this may be the best time in history” for relations with Latin America.
President Obama has an increasingly narrow window to chart a bold, new course with Venezuela—and the entire Latin American region. Alas, hitherto, he has been below deck with something akin to motion sickness.