Daniel Larison

The U.S. Will Regret Interfering in Venezuela

U.S. policymakers have frequently failed to plan for what comes after the overthrow of a foreign government, but in the case of Venezuela the Trump administration and its allies failed to plan for the beginning:

Longtime observers, however, say the generals doubt the promises will be kept. This is a major reason why the revolution isn’t moving as quickly as some had hoped when Guaido electrified the world on Jan. 23 with his declaration. This has led to impatience and finger-pointing. U.S. policy makers and those around Guaido — as well as leaders in Brazil and Colombia — are eyeing one another and worrying about failure. Officials in each camp have said privately they assumed the others had a more developed strategy [bold mine-DL].

No one should have assumed that the Trump administration had a well-considered plan, but because the process leading up to the recognition of Guaido seemed less chaotic and dysfunctional than usual there seems to be the mistaken impression that U.S. officials aren’t just making things up as they go along. Administration officials probably thought they were seizing on an opportunity for a relatively easy foreign policy win, and they were being egged on by Marco Rubio and other hawks who had every incentive to minimize the difficulties and problems that this policy would face. There is an eerie similarity to the run-up to the Libyan intervention in the complete failure to plan ahead and the initial overestimation of the opposition’s capabilities. Let’s hope that any similarities with Libya end there.

One reason that the Venezuelan opposition doesn’t seem to have a “more developed strategy” is that the plan to install Guaido as interim president was made by only a handful of people without the knowledge of the rest of the opposition. The Wall Street Journal reported on this last week:

What appeared to be a carefully calibrated policy to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was actually a big gamble by a small group of opposition leaders acting on a hastily assembled plan.

The strategy marked a coup of sorts: this one within the country’s notoriously fractious opposition, which had been locked in debate over whether to negotiate with Mr. Maduro or take more direct action.

When Juan Guaidó declared himself Venezuela’s interim president on Jan. 23 in front of a crowd of 100,000 people under a broiling sun, some leading opposition figures had no idea he would do so, say people who work with Mr. Guaidó and other top leaders. That included a few standing alongside him. A stern look of shock crossed their faces. Some quietly left the stage.

“What the hell is going on?” one member of a group of politicians wrote to the others in a WhatsApp group chat. “How come we didn’t know about this.”

The plan was largely devised by a group of four opposition leaders—two in exile, one under house arrest and one barred from leaving the country.

Guaido and his allies valued speed and surprise over preparation, but because of that they don’t appear to have any idea what to do next. That doesn’t bode well for Venezuela in the coming months, and it helps explain why there have been so few defections of military officers to the opposition’s side:

In a country with more than 2,000 generals and admirals, only one top officer — who commands no troops — has pledged allegiance to Guaido.

There is usually a dangerous combination of hubris and failure to anticipate setbacks in every regime change policy, and this one is no exception. Again and again, we see the same arrogant, breezy assumption that regime change will be quick, easy, and relatively cheap, and we find that the regime changers never considered what they would do when things didn’t go according to their hastily-made, ill-conceived plan. Toppling an entrenched government is always going to be harder, take longer, and be more costly than anyone expects, and that is why it is something that the U.S. shouldn’t attempt unless it is absolutely necessary. As the standoff in Venezuela drags on, it will become increasingly clear that the U.S. should not have interfered in this crisis.

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Yemen’s Humanitarian Catastrophe Keeps Getting Worse

The latest report on Yemen from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) details the horrifying conditions there:

An estimated 80 per cent of the population – 24 million people – require some form of humanitarian or protection assistance, including 14.3 million who are in acute need. Severity of needs is deepening, with the number of people in acute need a staggering 27 per cent higher than last year [bold mine-DL]. Two-thirds of all districts in the country are already pre-famine, and one-third face a convergence of multiple acute vulnerabilities.

As the report says, more than 20 million Yemenis are food insecure, and another 10 million suffer from “extreme levels of hunger.” Yemenis are dying daily from hunger and other preventable causes. A new outbreak of swine flu has already claimed scores of lives in the capital and threatens hundreds more:

Reuters reports on the case of Fatima Qoba, a severely malnourished 12-year old girl, who was displaced along with her family from their home in northern Yemen by Saudi coalition bombing:

After trying two other hospitals which could not help, a relative found the money to transport Qoba to the clinic in Houthi-controlled Aslam, one of Yemen’s poorest districts with high malnutrition levels.

Lying on green hospital sheets, Qoba’s skin is papery, her eyes huge and her skeletal frame encased in a loose orange dress. A health worker feeds her a pale mush from a bowl.

Fatima is one of millions of Yemeni children suffering from extreme malnutrition, and at least 85,000 Yemeni children under the age of 5 have perished from hunger. The escalation and prolongation of the war from outside intervention and the destructive economic policies of the Saudi coalition and the “legitimate” Yemeni government have created these appalling conditions. The lives of more than half the population remain at risk from starvation each day that the war is allowed to drag on.

This is what the war on Yemen has done to Fatima and the many millions of children who are being starved to death:

These are the horrors that U.S. support for the war on Yemen helps make possible. This is the humanitarian catastrophe that has continued to worsen as our government has enabled and covered for the Saudis and Emiratis for the last four years. Extricating the U.S. from the war is a necessary step towards ending the war on Yemen, but the only way to end Yemen’s enormous suffering is if opponents of the war keep working for a lasting peace.

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Trump’s Fatally Flawed Iran Policy

Mike Pompeo, CIA director (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Mike Pompeo is pleased that sanctions have made things worse for the Iranian people:

Pompeo dodges the question he is asked, because the obvious answer to Saberi’s question is no. The administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has failed to change regime behavior, and it isn’t going to force Iran to negotiate anything with the U.S. The Secretary of State makes it clear that the administration’s goal is to make conditions inside Iran so bad that there is an uprising, but the administration is going to fail here, too.

There are at least two fatal flaws in the administration’s policy. First, the Iranian people don’t want the chaos and upheaval that would come with such an uprising. That is a consistent message coming from people inside Iran in one report after another. Second, Iranians aren’t going to assist the U.S. in overthrowing their own government. The more that the administration emphasizes that regime change is their true goal, the more resentment and opposition that is going to inspire among the people suffering under sanctions.

As always, Iran hawks fail to take into account the agency and aspirations of the population they claim to support, and they definitely fail to take their nationalism into account. They imagine that they can strangle and choke an entire nation, and then that nation will spontaneously fall in line with the hawks’ preferences. It is on the basis of this risible assumption that they support spreading more misery across an entire country.

Iranians certainly aren’t going to want to help the U.S. after our government has been strangling their economy and impoverishing them. Inflicting collective punishment on the entire population would be the wrong thing to do in any case, and it also isn’t going to get the administration what it wants. They are exacerbating the suffering of tens of millions of people for nothing.

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Pence’s Insulting Warsaw Speech

Vice President Mike Spence, speaking at the Southern Baptist Convention (Fox4 News DFW screen grab)

Mike Pence berated our closest European allies while in Poland and demanded that they withdraw from the JCPOA:

In a speech in Warsaw on Thursday, Pence reprimanded the U.K., France and Germany for creating a financing plan that would allow European companies to continue trading with Iran in spite of renewed American sanctions on the Islamic republic.

“They call this scheme a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’,” Pence said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “We call it an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime.’’

Pence fails to grasp that our allies don’t accept the legitimacy of these sanctions. The U.S. reimposed these sanctions in clear violation of the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231, and by threatening to apply them to European companies the U.S. has overreached and violated the sovereignty of our allies. The fact that they have gone to the trouble of creating a workaround mechanism should tell the Trump administration how seriously they take this. Our allies object to being told how and with whom they are permitted to do business by Washington, and they are finally doing something about it. Were it not for Trump’s irrational decision to exit the nuclear deal and his vindictive decision to reimpose sanctions, there would be no rift with our allies. Thanks to Pence’s histrionics, that rift is sure to grow even wider.

U.S. officials can’t make up their minds whether they think the “special purpose vehicle” is worthless or dangerous. They have tended to dismiss it as having little or no effect, but Pence’s attack suggests that they think it might be much more successful in facilitating legitimate trade between Europe and Iran. The vice president’s complaints about the mechanism are telling. At the moment, the European Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) is supposed to be used to facilitate trade in humanitarian goods. The administration likes to pretend that their sanctions allow for this trade, but in practice their restrictions on financial institutions make it practically impossible for Iranians to pay for the goods. The “special purpose vehicle” is a way around that obstacle, and Pence makes clear in his speech that the administration is very much against anything that might actually succeed in getting the Iranian people the food and medicine they need.

That makes his demand that our allies renege on their commitments all the more ridiculous:

“The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and join with us as we bring the economic and diplomatic pressure necessary to give the Iranian people, the region and the world the peace, security and freedom they deserve,” he said.

Our allies aren’t going to join the Trump administration’s policy of collective punishment against the Iranian people. The nuclear deal is working as intended, and our allies have no reason to give up on it as long as Iran is complying with it. The administration’s pressure campaign is bringing hardship and misery to the Iranian people, and our allies refuse to participate in a policy of regime change in all but name. Our allies are doing what they can to uphold their end of the bargain that we all made, and Pence’s response is to throw a fit on European soil and make absurd demands that will be taken as an insult.

Pence’s speech confirms that the administration’s Iran obsession is an intense and destructive as ever. The Warsaw conference was already a mess. Pence’s insults directed at our allies guarantee that it will be a complete failure.

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House Passes H.J.Res 37, 248-177

Yemeni child eats ready-to-use therapeutic food bag in 2017. Credit: UNICEF/USAID/Flickr

The House has passed the antiwar Yemen resolution, H.J.Res. 37, by a vote of 248-177. Rep. Ro Khanna, the lead sponsor of the resolution, issued a statement following the historic vote:

Today is historic. This is the culmination of several years of legislative efforts to end our involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen. I’m encouraged by the direction people are pushing our party to take on foreign policy, promoting restraint and human rights and with the sense they want Congress to play a much larger role.

I applaud all cosponsors for supporting this historic effort and thank my 248 colleagues who voted yes on passage today, especially Speaker Pelosi and Leader Hoyer, HASC Chair Smith, HFAC Chair Engel, Rules Chair McGovern, CPC Co-Chair Pocan and nearly 100 cosponsors of my resolution. I’d also like to thank Senator Sanders for being my thought partner and co-lead on this work in the upper chamber.

Like last year’s passage of S.J.Res. 54, the passage of this resolution is a significant assertion of Congressional authority in matters of war. While opponents of the measure desperately tried to deny that the U.S. was involved in hostilities in Yemen, the evidence of extensive U.S. involvement over the last four years made that an untenable claim. Despite years of lies from this administration and the Pentagon, most House members could recognize an unauthorized U.S. war when they saw one. Despite the constant fear-mongering of pro-Saudi hawks in both houses, most House members understood that the war serves no American interests and implicates us in war crimes and crimes against humanity. When the only argument that the war’s supporters had was to keep shouting “Iran!” at the other side, it was just a matter of time before they lost.

It is unfortunate that it has taken almost four years for Congress to act on U.S. involvement in the war, but it has not been for lack of effort on the part of the war’s opponents. In just the last two years, we have seen the war on Yemen go from being almost completely invisible and ignored to becoming the focus of the most important antiwar vote in modern U.S. history. The successful passage of H.J.Res. 37 has once again forced the issue to center stage, and it sets up an overdue fight with the executive over war powers and over our relationship with the Saudis and the rest of the coalition.

There is still much more to be done. The people of Yemen remain in dire need of help as they face famine, cholera, displacement, poverty, and continued war, and we know that the Trump administration will fight to keep U.S. support for the war going as long as they can. Nonetheless, today’s vote was a huge step in the right direction, and it is a success that advocates for peace and restraint can be proud of.

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Netanyahu’s War Talk

Israeli Prime Minister B. Netanyahu Credit:Ververidis Vasilis /shutterstock

While attending the Warsaw conference that is ostensibly committed to promoting “peace and stability” in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu let loose with this statement:

“What is important about this meeting – and this meeting is not in secret, because there are many of those – is that this is an open meeting with representatives of leading Arab countries, that are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran.” Netanyahu said.

The prime minister’s official Twitter account used the exact same wording:

This isn’t a case of Netanyahu’s words being taken out of context or misinterpreted. The prime minister’s own official account used this wording because this is the message that Netanyahu wanted to convey. It should come as no surprise that someone who has railed against Iran throughout his career would use language like this. The prime minister has talked up the idea of bombing Iran for years, and his government has obviously been attacking Iranian targets inside Syria for quite a while. Netanyahu said this in the context of talking about attacking Iranian forces in Syria and forcing them out of the country:

“What we are doing is pushing and driving Iran from Syria. We are committed to doing this,” he said.

Netanyahu seems to be trying to create the illusion of broader regional support for possible escalation against Iran in Syria and Lebanon. He may be interested in war with Iran, but most Arab states don’t actually have any interest in war with Iran if they are the ones that have to fight it. The Omani government whose foreign minister Netanyahu just met at the conference certainly has no desire for such a war. In any case, the prime minister has helped to confirm that the Warsaw conference is a poorly-disguised anti-Iran gathering.

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Pompeo’s Botched Warsaw Conference

Then-Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-KS, speaking at a rally in 2013. He faces a senate grilling for his secretary of state nomination today.Mark Taylor/Creative Commons

Pompeo’s Warsaw conference isn’t going to amount to much, and almost half the invited governments may not be sending their foreign ministers to represent them:

What Pompeo originally billed as a major conference to pressure Iran on its regional influence, missile testing and terrorism is now as likely to be defined by what it is not — and who is not coming. Several key countries appear to be engaging in a subtle diplomatic snub to protest the Trump administration’s policies toward Iran and Syria.

Scratch Federica Mogherini, the foreign policy chief for the European Union, who said she had a prior commitment. France and Germany are sending second-tier-level diplomats. Russia won’t be there at all. And the British foreign secretary may leave early.

Pompeo botched this conference from the start, but it is ultimately the administration’s bankrupt approach to issues related to Iran that is to blame for the failure. The U.S. needlessly created the rifts with our allies over the nuclear deal, and that has undermined cooperation with them on everything else. Fixating on Iran as the source of all regional problems regardless of the facts may gain Pompeo points with the president, but it alienates and antagonizes most of the governments that the administration is trying to get on board with their agenda. Fortunately, there is no international consensus in support of the administration’s Iran policy, and Trump and Pompeo are too inept at diplomacy to change that. As a result, the Warsaw conference isn’t likely to get them any results, and it is more likely to underscore just how isolated they are on Iran and on some other Middle Eastern issues as well.

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Antiwar Yemen Resolution Is Expected to Pass Today

The new version of the House antiwar resolution on Yemen, H.J.Res. 37, is set to pass later today:

The Democrat-led House is voting Wednesday on Khanna’s bill to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. And it’s expected to pass overwhelmingly with near-unanimous support from Democrats, plus a handful of conservative, non-interventionist Republicans.

Proponents expect it to clear both chambers with bipartisan support. And even though President Donald Trump is expected to veto the measure, it will mark the first time in history that the House and Senate adopted a War Powers resolution, and it will represent a major rebuke of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, particularly its posture toward Saudi Arabia.

Rep. Khanna has been a tireless advocate in the House for ending U.S. involvement in this indefensible war, and thanks to his leadership and perseverance and the support of his many colleagues this resolution is finally going to pass. Similar resolutions were torpedoed twice before by the Republican leadership in 2017 and 2018, but now that Republicans no longer control the House there is no chance of that happening again. Passage of H.J.Res. 37 will not only be a rebuke to Trump’s continued support for the Saudi coalition war on Yemen, but it will also make clear that Americans have never consented to U.S. involvement in this war and our representatives have never authorized it. For the first time in decades, both the House and the Senate are poised to reassert their constitutional authority in matters of war. It will be a fitting tribute to the late Rep. Walter Jones, who was a dedicated opponent of unnecessary and illegal U.S. wars and an original co-sponsor of all three House antiwar Yemen resolutions. Congressional scrutiny and opposition to the war helped the diplomatic efforts to secure a limited ceasefire last year. Continued pressure from Congress will aid in bringing peace to Yemen despite the administration’s ongoing disgraceful support for the war.

The passage of the resolutions in the House and the Senate is only the beginning of an overdue effort to pressure the Saudi coalition to end their war. There are other measures that Congress will be considering this year related to the war on Yemen and the U.S.-Saudi relationship that can be used to bring additional pressure to bear on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Kate Kizer explains them here:

Congressmen Ted Lieu (D-CA), Ted Yoho (R-FL), and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) have introduced a stand-alone bill to permanently prohibit U.S. in-flight refueling to the Saudi-led coalition, thereby preventing the Pentagon from reversing its earlier decision to cut off this support. House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) introduced legislation to punish Saudi Arabia for its murder of Jamal Khashoggi by ending all weapons sales and security cooperation with the country unless high-bar conditions are met. Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Senator Todd Young (R-IN) have reintroduced their Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, which is a positive first step towards a comprehensive reformation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and U.S. policy in Yemen, and includes sanctions for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, a permanent end to refueling for the Yemen military coalition, and a nearly two-year suspension of air-to-ground munitions to Saudi Arabia.

The calamitous humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen remains the worst in the world, and up to 15 million people are still at risk of dying from starvation. It is critical that opponents of the war use the momentum from the House and Senate resolutions to keep building pressure on the administration and the Saudi coalition to secure a general ceasefire, a lifting of the blockade, and the stabilization of Yemen’s battered economy. Yemen’s plight has not become any less urgent, and our government’s responsibility for creating the horrifying conditions there has not lessened. The people of Yemen have already been waiting for four years for the war being waged upon them to end, and they must not be made to wait any longer.

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Trump’s Anti-Iran Propaganda Backfires

Propaganda Poster outside the former US embassy of Tehran featuring Donald Trump in January, 2018. InspiredbyMaps /Flickr

Thomas Erdbrink reports on a Trump administration attempt at propaganda that backfired:

“40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future,” the president said in the Twitter post. Mr. Trump also posted the message in Persian, using the same image.

When [the photographer] Ms. Moayeri saw the post, she said, something snapped.

“I felt cheated and abused, it causes me great sorrow to see the man who is inflicting so much pain upon me and my compatriots to use my image for his own agenda,” she said. “I did not take this risk to have someone using it to pressure us Iranians even further.”

The episode sums up so much of what is wrong with the Trump administration’s Iran policy and its cynical efforts to exploit the grievances of the Iranian people for their own purposes. The administration used an Iranian photographer’s image to promote their own regime change message after they had imposed cruel and unjust sanctions on the country and banned Iranians from coming to the U.S. The president feigns concern for the same people that his policies are impoverishing and starving, and he tries to hijack the legitimate protests and grievances of Iranians to advance an agenda that aims at causing those same Iranians more hardship and misery.

Ms. Moayeri was understandably incensed by Trump’s abuse of her work:

But she lost her temper when President Trump posted the image on Monday. “His sanctions are devastating our lives. Our money became worthless. People are becoming poor. Because of his travel ban, many Iranians cannot visit their family members in the United States. My father lives there and I can’t go either,” she said. “I just don’t want to be any part of his agenda against Iran.”

Iranians have many complaints against their government, but they aren’t interested in empty statements of support from an American government that has done nothing but inflict punishment and worsen their living conditions. Trump’s attempt to use an image of Iranian protest to promote his bankrupt Iran policy blew up in his face because Iranians don’t want to be associated with a policy that harms their country and their fellow countrymen.

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The U.S. Should Rejoin the Nuclear Deal Without New Demands

Ilan Goldenberg and Eric Brewer call for the next president to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA):

The first question a hypothetical 2020 election victor (not to mention candidates on the campaign trail) will face is whether or not the United States should re-enter the deal. The answer should be a resounding yes. The Iran nuclear deal is one of the most robust and detailed nuclear agreements ever achieved, and when the United States withdrew, the deal was working exactly as designed: Iran’s nuclear program was drastically curtailed, and the U.S. ability to detect any Iranian attempt to build a bomb—should its ambitions ever change—was significantly improved. Most importantly, Iran was adhering to the deal and continues to do so. If the United State re-enters the deal, these benefits will persist.

The authors are right about all of this, so it is more than a little odd that they then go on to argue that a future president shouldn’t settle for reentering the agreement as it currently exists. If the deal does all that they claim (and it does), it would be churlish at best to insist on extracting additional concessions from the party that has been complying with the agreement the entire time. Goldenberg and Brewer wrongly frame U.S. reentry as a concession to Iran, as if our government is doing them a favor to rejoin an agreement that our government helped create at their expense:

Since Tehran has decided that abiding by the nuclear deal is in its interests despite Washington’s withdrawal, a U.S. return and the corresponding sanctions relief would essentially be a unilateral concession to Iran. Washington will have the ability to ask for something in return.

The authors want to punish Iran for honoring the agreement despite U.S. violations by expecting Iran to give up even more than it already has. Whatever else one wants to say about this, it will be a non-starter in Tehran, and it should be. If the positions were reversed, our government would never consider offering even more to the party that reneged on its commitments, and we shouldn’t expect other governments to behave any differently.

Instead of simply rejoining the deal, the authors propose that a future administration “should use the leverage gained from Trump’s exit—however much they might disagree with that decision—to come to some preliminary understandings with Iran on the many issues of contention that remain in the relationship and on the future of Iran’s nuclear program.” In other words, they want the next administration to make our government’s reentry into an agreement that it should never have left conditional on the Iranian government’s willingness to negotiate on other issues that they have already said they won’t talk about. More to the point, Iranian officials have made U.S. reentry the precondition for any future negotiations, so they aren’t going to participate in haggling with the U.S. over the price of rejoining the agreement.

Goldenberg and Brewer have taken a straightforward, sensible position–urging the U.S. rejoin the JCPOA–and warped it almost beyond recognition. They add that the U.S. “should also be realistic and not ask for too much, since it is in the United States’ interest to go back into the agreement,” but that raises the obvious question: why make additional demands to get us to do something that already serves U.S. interests? The attempt to overreach and profit from Trump’s previous deal-breaking is foolish and greedy, and Iran isn’t going to play along. This sort of unnecessary foot-dragging on the part of a future administration would be just the thing to convince Iran’s leaders to give up on the JCPOA all together. If Iran’s government has been hoping to wait out Trump, they will not respond favorably to more pressure tactics after Trump is out of office. The authors have just provided an outline of what the next administration definitely shouldn’t do when rejoining the JCPOA. I hope none of the 2020 candidates adopts their recommendations.

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