Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Regime Change in Venezuela

Posted in South America/Central America/Western Hemisphere by Dan on December 12, 2009

Around 8 a.m. on Tuesday, I wandered semi-consciously (from two hours of sleep the following night) into my foreign-policy seminar for the a few student presentations.  Luckily, I had already given my presentation the previous day on U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy in the Middle East; an issue that is quickly gaining traction within the world’s agenda.  Therefore, essentially all I had to do was sit back, relax, and listen to a few of my classmates explain their topics in the best way they can on an early, depressing, and bitter-cold Tuesday morning.

To my surprise, two out of the four presentations given that morning dealt with America’s engagement (or lack thereof) in Latin America.  With Americans- including myself- concentrating most of their time on Afghanistan and Iran as of late, it was quite refreshing to experience accurate and in-depth reporting on political developments in a region historically placed on the back-burner.

The first presentation focused on America’s reliance on the Cuban Trade Embargo, and how flawed the embargo has become for democratization within Cuba as a whole.  The second issue dealt with Hugo Chavez’ s regime in Venezuela, most notably his inherent desire in strengthening Venezuela as a powerful fighting force on the South American continent.  As you might expect, as a young student who has been interested in international security for most of my college career, I was rather taken aback by the in-class discussion on Venezuela’s current situation.

The primary point that this particular classmate was trying to make was that the United States should start inserting more money and resources- both from the State Department and the Pentagon- on Mr. Chavez and his Bolivarian administration.  Chavez’s strong relationship with Iran, Russia, Syria, and Libya were used as examples to buttress the argument that Venezuela is not simply an annoyance that can be ignored or dealt with through diplomatic isolation and economic pressure.  To the contrary, the claim was laid out in front of the entire seminar that the United States Government may find it wise to draw up some preliminary plans for regime change.

In fact, this peer of mine had a pretty sophisticated battle-plan for the U.S-led operation.  Instead of launching a full-fledged invasion of Venezuelan territory, Mr. So-and-So proclaimed that the best possible option for a successful military campaign would an American-funded and American-sponsored guerilla campaign against the Venezuelan armed-forces; similar tactics that were used by Washington during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s.  With arms and money flowing to anti-Chavez insurgent groups, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution would slowly collapse under its own weight.

Here I am, listening to this speech, and wondering why on earth we are discussing an operation so unrealistic when a quarter of a million American soldiers are already engaged in two wars.  During a time when Sunni insurgents are making a comeback in Iraq (take Tuesday’s bombing in Central Baghdad as an example), and during a time when the Taliban appears unbeatable in Afghanistan, it would hardly seem rational to start drawing up war-plans for a third front.

And then it hit me, right there at the end of the presentation; young Americans are still viewing their country largely through the traditional lens of the Cold War.  Even with President Obama in office, soft-power and an understanding of the national interest are still taking a backseat to a reliance on military force and balance-of-power politics.  You would think that we were still in George W. Bush’s first term, when preemptive warfare was the norm and the “axis of evil” was still alive.

But I digress.  What is important to learn through this experience is not that regime change is a delegitimized policy.  In fact, I would hope that America’s involvement in Iraq has already given a confirmation to this belief.  What is important is the cumbersome nature of the American perception.  Despite the coming of a new administration with reformed ideas, many Americans still see the world in black-and-white, where good always triumphs over evil and wars are always fought to preserve American interests.  But as we all know, the world is much more complicated than that.  Shades of gray persist in every corner of the globe, whether it involves America’s current quagmire in Afghanistan or the United Nations’ incompatible problem with the Iranians.

In an age where asymmetrical enemies continue to threaten the United States at every turn, redirecting resources in the hopes of taking out one belligerent Latin American leader is simply not in our vital national interest.  Though Chavez may be a criminal and an autocrat- and although Venezuela may engage in bombastic rhetoric towards its neighbors from time to time- the United States can still maintain its primacy despite a few stubborn politicians.

Now do not get me wrong.  Venezuela acquiring modern Russian aircraft, tanks, and anti-aircraft missiles is not something to sneeze about.  But yet again, I would like to think Chavez is rational enough to think twice before launching a war in South America.  He is not exactly the most popular figure in Latin America to begin with.

More times than not, getting priorities straight is as important- if not more so- as effective diplomacy and a resilient military.  It is time for pragmatism to replace radicalism, and it is time for the United States to depose idealism with realism.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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