John Bolton invoked the Monroe Doctrine as he was trying to evade a question about the glaring double standards that the administration applies to different authoritarian regimes around the world:
“No, I think it’s separate [comparing Venezuela to Saudi Arabia]. In this administration, we’re not afraid to use the word Monroe Doctrine. This is a country in our hemisphere. It’s been the objective of American presidents going back to [President] Ronald Reagan to have a completely democratic hemisphere,” Bolton told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
The Monroe Doctrine is one of the most frequently misunderstood and misrepresented aspects of the history of U.S. foreign policy. Bolton is not alone in warping it beyond all recognition into a blanket license to interfere in the internal affairs of our neighbors, but as National Security Advisor his misrepresentation is more significant and dangerous. Whether this interference is justified in terms of creating a “democratic hemisphere” or not is beside the point. There is no honest interpretation of Monroe’s 1823 statement that endorses the idea that the U.S. should intervene in neighboring countries to change their governments. Monroe was responding to contemporary counter-revolutionary invasions in Europe backed by the Holy Alliance, and he spelled out very clearly that any European attempt to take their counter-revolutionary program to the newly independent states of Latin America would be viewed as a potential threat to America:
We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.
The core of the Monroe Doctrine was above all respect for the sovereignty and independence of our neighbors, and a commitment to remain neutral. Monroe was making the case for why the U.S. would not be drawn into the wars in Europe or Spain’s hostilities with its former colonies. Obviously, this has nothing to do with taking sides in a purely internal political dispute between rival factions in a nearby country. In fact, Monroe goes on to say that it will be the policy of the U.S. “to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none.” The Trump administration is refusing to recognize the de facto government of Venezuela, and instead it is seeking to promote the establishment of a different one through economic warfare against the entire country. It is simply appalling revisionism to suggest that our government’s current effort at regime change in Venezuela is somehow justified or motivated by the concerns laid out by Monroe, and as usual Bolton has been allowed to get away with making specious, self-serving claims in support of a bad policy.
The real reason why the Trump administration covers for and arms despots in Egypt and Saudi Arabia while denouncing authoritarian rulers in Venezuela and Iran is that they are continuing the bad practice of whitewashing, ignoring, and enabling abuses by our clients while cynically using human rights and humanitarian crises to justify meddling in the affairs of states that are not aligned with Washington. That’s bad for the causes of promoting human rights and humanitarian relief, and because it is so obviously two-faced the administration’s criticisms of regime abuses in these cases are difficult to take seriously.