Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.02.12

Are the neocons back in Washington?

the japan times on February 5, 2019

Over the weekend, Japan's mainstream media reported on several big stories from overseas. Russian President Vladimir Putin reciprocated his American counterpart's decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. U.S. President Donald Trump hinted that he would declare a state of emergency in his State of the Union address to build his border wall. Trump reportedly suggested Danang, Vietnam, as a venue to hold the second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In the meantime, reports from Singapore predicted that Chinese President Xi Jinping was considering a meeting with Trump "on Feb. 27 and 28 to resolve the trade dispute" between China and the United States.

These stories are not unimportant. They seem to me, however, to be either so predictable or essentially transitional that I have no appetite to write about them this week. What attracts me the most now is the deteriorating political turmoil in Venezuela -- a situation to which many people here may not have paid full attention.

One exception was NHK's news team. Its members closely followed the situation in Caracas and allocated significant amount of airtime to report about Venezuela. They even interviewed me for more than 30 minutes and broadcast some portions of the taped interview on their 7 p.m. news.

I was a bit nervous during the interview, since I wasn't a Latin America hand in the Foreign Ministry and don't speak Spanish, either. I told them that I did not wish to make comments on details I'm not aware of. Fortunately, their questions were centered on the U.S.-Russia-China global rivalries and on oil prices in the international market.

After the interview, I learned a lot about what Japan is interested in regarding the crisis in Caracas. Initial impressions were the following: The crisis is about oil. Trump may use force to change the government. Tensions among the U.S., Russia and China may intensify over Venezuela's huge reserve of crude oil. Really, is that so?

I have a different perspective on the political showdown between President Nicolas Maduro and National Assembly speaker Juan Guaido in Venezuela. My concern was whether what is happening on the other side of the globe could affect East Asia's political or economic stability.

1. The Caracas crisis is not always about oil.

In Japan, some economist pundits talked about Venezuela as a potential epicenter of fluctuating crude oil prices. While I do not challenge their argument, the issue is more about Venezuela's deteriorating living environment, hyperinflation and fatal plagues. Millions of Venezuelans have already left the country as refugees and the crisis there is becoming a humanitarian disaster. Maduro, unable to work with Guaido to stabilize the nation, is becoming more dependent on Cuba militarily, and on Russia and China financially.

2. "All options are on the table" doesn't mean war.

In 1913 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson reportedly said, "I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!" In 2004, in Baghdad I heard a young U.S. congressional staffer saying, "I am going to teach Iraqis democracy!" Alas, American naivete and ignorance have not changed a bit. U.S. military interventions in Latin America are nothing new. The Trump administration has intensified pressures on Maduro by stating that all options are open, though this may not mean that Washington wants to use force to replace Maduro. History shows that such U.S. interventions have never been successful.

3. Russia will not confront the U.S. over Venezuela

Moscow is the most powerful supporter of Maduro. Putin does not hide his solidarity with Maduro, conducting joint military exercises and selling Russian weapons to the Venezuelan military. Some pundits worry that, with the suspension of the INF treaty, a new U.S.-Russia cold war may break out over Venezuela. Venezuela, however, is no Syria. Caracas is too far away from Moscow and Russia has no dependable allies, like Iran and Hezbollah, in South America. Putin's priority has been and will continue to be to lift the economic sanctions against Russia that were imposed following its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

4. China would rather recover its investment funds.

Will China fight Americans for Maduro? Hardly. Beijing already has too many problems with Washington and cannot afford more. If Xi is to meet with Trump in Danang at the end of February to seek a truce of -- if not an end to -- the trade war, he has no time to waste on Caracas. Beijing's top priority in Venezuela must be to secure energy resources rather than challenge the U.S. there. If so, China may not defend Maduro to the end against Guaido and may instead do its best to recover as much of its funds -- reportedly $65 billion in loans, cash and investment -- as possible.

5. From "America First" to a neocon agenda.

What surprised me most was to find such familiar names as Elliot Abrams. On Jan. 25, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Abrams his new special envoy for Venezuela, who will be in charge of "all things related to our efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela." Doesn't that sound familiar? In 2004, when I was seconded to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, Abrams was special assistant to the president at the National Security Council. The occupation of Iraq, in which he was deeply involved, was the biggest fiasco I've ever seen. What will he do as special envoy? Will history rhyme again?

The Trump administration started America First, insisting that the U.S. should not make unnecessary interventions overseas. After Steve Bannon left, however, I conventionally thought that U.S. foreign policy returned to its traditional orientation in the second half of 2018. I was wrong.

With the presence of Abrams, John Bolton, Pompeo and others whom I call the "neocon comeback kids," U.S. foreign policy now shows atavism symptoms again. More precisely, when Trump takes the lead, the neocons are silent. If the president shows no interest, however, they do whatever they consider appropriate.