Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Some Things Never ChangeThe Trump Administration, Venezuela, and the Foreign Policy Consensus

By Jack Carlos MindichPublished February 27, 2019

Elliott Abrams at the State Department
Interventionist foreign policy has become entrenched in the establishment of our government. It represents a great risk to the people of other countries, endangers and burdens constituents at home, and is a deeply hypocritical position for many in the establishment. It is also nothing new.

While the Trump presidency has certainly represented a departure from traditional rhetoric, many of the usual zones of bipartisanship have remained surreptitiously consistent with customary practice. This is perhaps no more true than in the field of foreign policy. President Trump entered the oval office with promises of an “America First” policy centered on withdrawing from needless international conflict. As he said only a month ago in his State of the Union, “great nations do not fight endless wars.”

Yet, we arrive at Venezuela, where American military vehicles currently stand poised at the border. Venezuela represents a quagmire by any standard. It would take too long to, here, delve into the complexities of the Maduro presidency and the degree of blame his administration should receive for the country’s current state compared to the crippling sanctions implemented by the United States. Regardless of the backdrop, the Maduro regime is a problematic one with a history of abuses of power and problematic conduct. Armed with this, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have tapped into a long history of American interventionism to justify calls for Maduro to abdicate. This is a huge mistake and it is a near unanimous one.

Republicans like Marco Rubio (R-FL) are hardly surprising. But, many Democrats who have otherwise resisted Trump have lined up as well, which on its face should come as a surprise. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Ben Cardin (D-MD), who serves on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, are among those who have voiced support for Maduro’s opposition. They were both careful to say that they do not want military action, but anyone who knows the current orchestrator of US policy in Venezuela, Elliott Abrams’ history with aid should be more than a little dubious of the military convoys Abrams put the border ostensibly only to provide relief. Few have urged complete restraint, and those who do are firmly outside of the establishment center. Cardin and Donna Shalala, a former Clinton cabinet member were explicit on the establishment rhetoric, criticizing Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for refusing to say “Maduro must go.” However, though the polarization in other areas under Trump makes this situation seem unique, in reality, this consensus is not out of the ordinary.

Why would Democrats who, for the most part, would not trust Trump to manage a lemonade stand, vest him with the power to orchestrate regime change? Perhaps because regime change has been the centerpiece of a bipartisan American policy for decades. The timing is especially curious given that the House recently passed a measure to curb the president’s power to continue war in Yemen. Even so, Venezuela runs the risk of opening up a new front.

“Maduro must go” is vague, invites American activism, and harkens back to President Obama’s infamous “red line” comments on Syria. Why must Maduro go? And why Maduro and not Bolsonaro in Brazil or el-Sisi in Egypt or Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia or various despotic leaders in the gulf states? (One might offer a brief aside to note Saudi Arabia’s massive bipartisan lobbying expenditures.)  The 'despots begone' doctrine is not applied across the board. But, make no mistake, while activism may not be consistent across abusers, it is a mainstay in the foreign policy tool chest. Whatever the president’s affiliation, the establishment in both parties has been only too willing to twist itself into knots to continue the practices. While Iraq is now regarded as a failure, the establishment has since jumped into regime change in Libya and Honduras, and conflicts in Syria and Yemen among others. These have spanned Presidents from both parties, and the same figures return again and again.

Elliott Abrams, who has been tasked to lead the Trump agenda in Venezuela, cut his teeth in a destructive American involvement in El Salvador and was indicted for two misdemeanors and later pardoned for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. He returned to work in the NSC under George W. Bush and has returned again to the Trump administration.

John Bolton followed a similar path weilding even greater influence. Officials like Bolton proved critical in causing Trump to scale back his plans for an across-the-board retreat from Syria, a policy that would have shook the foundations of the foreign policy establishment. It is policymakers like these that insulate the interventionist status quo, and they point to a country where even a supposed isolationist like Trump cannot maneuver around the entrenched policies of the hawks. The long careers of Bolton and Abrams are emblematic of a deeper rooted activist core of the American foreign policy structure.

In the wake of Abrams’ hiring have sprouted rejuvenated interventionists, many of whom have spent most of the Trump presidency vociferously protesting his every move. Max Boot, an avowed neocon, directed voters in 2018 to “Vote against all Republicans. Every single one.” Yet, he returned to go to the mat for his Council on Foreign Relations colleague, in his words: “basically a good person and... somebody who I don’t see as being terribly ideological. I really see him as a foreign-policy professional who has served the country a long time.” It is this development that should be most frightening to anti-interventionists of all stripes.

It is understandable that neocons have joined with the left on some domestic issues during the Trump presidency. Neoconservatives are, after all, cut from the same original cloth (Irving Kristol, one of the ideologies founding fathers described its followers as “liberals who have been mugged by reality.”)  

But, they should not have been welcomed into the coalition. Neo-conservatives have managed to be on the wrong side of history with nostradamus-like consistency. In the aftermath of the disaster of Iraq, one might expect neocons to feel compelled to temper Kristol’s ascription of realism. Instead, his son William, who in 2003 predicted Iraq would be “a two-month war, not an 8-year war” still believed as of 2015 that it was right to go into Iraq, that there had been positive progress, and that President Obama “threw it all away.” It appears clear to most observers, including the president, that Iraq has been a Hindenberg-like catastrophe. But, while it is an obvious colossus of a failure, Iraq was less obviously only the planned step one of a Risk-like incursion across the Middle East ending in the overthrow of long time American foil Iran’s government. As neocons used to boast: “while anyone could go to Baghdad, real men hankered to go to Tehran.” Needless to say, this was a pipedream of epic proportions and it falls on the heels of similar collapses like the aforementioned Iran-Contra and other misplaced meddling across the globe. Since his prediction in 2003, Kristol has continued his run of luckless prognosticating by getting the result of every election since 2004 woefully wrong.

The fact that these thinkers are returning to prominence is legitimately frightenging. And the fact that the left has embraced them is even worse. Bill Kristol has appeared on MSNBC, Bret Stephens is a prominent name at the New York Times and the Center for American Progress, a mainstream liberal think tank teamed up with the American Enterprise Institute to denounce Trump’s calls for isolationism.

Yet, though resistance to Trump was what nominally joined these groups together in solidarity, it has not proved the decisive factor. In a perverse sleight of hand move, neocon Trump resisters have somehow materialized within the Trump administration and, yet, find centrists supporting them in Venezuela anyway. With it comes misplaced nostalgia: Harry Reid recently said that compared to Trump, George W. Bush was the “Babe Ruth of Presidents” and that he “misses him every day.” This is stunning. Whatever misfortune Trump has undoubtedly wrought globally is multiplied insurmountably by Bush’s policies in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and at home in criminal justice, and in New Orleans responding to Katrina. This revisionism suggests that even the most egregious marshallers of suffering can be pardoned by the establishment so long as their personal charm seems passable.  

Crucially, these policies do not benefit the American people, nor are they supported by the American people. 71% of the electorate wants to restrain American intervention. Some politicians on both sides, like Ro Khanna and Justin Amash who are squarely outside of the beltway center, have decried militarism, which is encouraging. Still, as shown by the gap between Trump’s rhetoric and action, most strikingly in Syria where he did a complete 180 after being leaned on by career interventionists, the hawks are deeply entrenched.

I do not subscribe to the realist school of international relations theory, and I do not believe that all countries are, necessarily, security maximizing or optimizing at all times. Nor are their interests uniform. But, I do believe strongly in the bureaucratic politics model, and it is clear that a hawkish foreign policy elite have attained an outsized power in American state policy. Figuring out how to reduce that will, at some point, need to be a central task for those who see activist foreign policy as both a senseless investment and a true humanitarian crisis. But those people are not the center.

It is telling that an establishment so concerned over thousands of people at the border is willing to be so cavalier with the fate of Venezuela which has a population of over thirty million. One wonders where the real priorities lie. Any liberal with a straight face should be unable to trust Trump, Bolton and Abrams to lead a reorganization of Caracas around a new core of democratic principles. Nor should anyone who mistrusts Trump’s concerns for Americans believe he has any iota of concern for the people of Venezuela. Yet, that is what the establishment is selling. And here we are.