Learning the Lessons of Failure in Venezuela

Another sobering lesson to take from the failure of Venezuela policy is that absolutely no one in Washington that cheered on this disaster will pay any price for their support.

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James Bosworth looks back at the failed experiment with U.S.-led international backing for Juan Guaidó as “interim” president of Venezuela:

Disputed elections are far too common in Latin America, but only rarely has such a divide between the de jure and de facto presidencies recognized by the rest of the world lasted so long. For those countries that recognized Guaido, the failure of the strategy may now keep them from recognizing other legitimate presidents in the future, to the benefit of those who enter or hold onto office unconstitutionally. No one wants to work with dictatorships. But if the Guaido experience teaches us one thing, it is that governments need to be cautious when they attempt legal maneuvers that don’t change the actual balance of power on the ground, as they may just be setting a trap for themselves.

One big lesson that the U.S. should take away from its failed regime change policy in Venezuela is that it should steer clear of taking sides in the internal political disputes of other countries. Another lesson our government should draw is that it should not listen to the convenient, self-serving recommendations of ideological exiles and their allies in Congress when they promise quick success in bringing down a foreign government. The US shouldn’t be seeking regime change in any case, but our leaders should know by now that they are being set up for failure when opposition activists and their cheerleaders paint a picture that’s too good to be true.

If it is ever tempted to get in the middle of a dispute, the US should definitely set a much higher standard for recognizing an opposition leader as another country’s leader. Guaidó’s claim to be acting as interim president was fairly sketchy from the outset, but it provided a fig leaf to dress up a regime change policy as something else. As Noah Feldman pointed out at the time, “Even as fig leaves go, it’s particularly wispy and minimal.” The constitutional interpretation that the opposition used to elevate Guaidó required stretching the document’s language so that it seemed to fit the situation, but the plain meaning of the provision they invoked didn’t really allow them to set up an alternative government as they did. It was expedient to pretend that Venezuela’s presidency was vacant for the purposes of rallying international support to remove the person who was still very much occupying the presidency. You can pretend that if you want, but don’t claim that it has something to do with legitimacy.

One of the main reasons why the Trump administration embarked on this foolish course was that Trump believed that he could get an easy foreign policy win, and he was encouraged in this misguided belief by Marco Rubio and other hardliners that didn’t understand the political landscape in Venezuela. When the quick win didn’t materialize, Trump soon lost interest, but the killing sanctions have remained in place ever since. As I discussed with my colleague Kelley Vlahos a couple weeks ago, the administration sidelined those in the government that knew something about Venezuela and listened to the fantasies of ideologues instead. It comes as no surprise that the more knowledgeable country experts knew that the regime change attempt wouldn’t work out, and their words of warning fell on deaf ears. When the US makes major decisions about its relations with another country by heeding the advice of reckless hawks that don’t know much about that country, its policy typically fails or backfires and the other country ends up worse off than it was.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.