Labeling Venezuela a terror-supporting state doesn’t fit

A reporter recently asked, “What would the basis be for adding Venezuela to the State Sponsor of Terrorism list?” There isn’t a straightforward answer to such a question. For the past decade, when I was with the State Department, I managed the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list and had to answer questions about the mechanics, advantages and disadvantages of adding countries to the most punitive — and least understood — of terrorism lists. Recent reporting in the Washington Post indicates the Trump administration is thinking about adding Venezuela to the list.

Labeling countries terrorist-supporting pariahs is an act of desperation — a “Hail Mary,” in football terms. Unless the international community shares the same sentiment, the country sanctioned will find ample opportunities to work around the SST tag. If branding countries as state sponsors worked, Iran, added to the list in 1984, and Syria, added in 1979, would have lessened support to groups such as Hezbollah. Instead, the scope of Iran’s and Syria’s cooperation with Hezbollah and other countries has only increased.

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The United States has taken a haphazard approach to applying the SST tag to countries. The United States took North Korea off the list in 2008 because of the belief that the Kim regime was going to cease nuclear weapons development. That decision didn’t achieve the desired policy changes in North Korea. Nine years later, in 2017, North Korea assassinated Kim Jong Nam, the Dear Leader’s half-brother, in a horrific chemical weapon attack at an international airport. The United States responded with verve by adding North Korea back to the SST list.  

Yet, when the Russian Federation attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a KGB defector, Trump senior policymakers remained quiet. Then, more recently, the CIA concluded that Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, likely ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor and resident of northern Virginia. There is no talk of adding the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the SST list.

The United States’ inconsistent application of the SST tag makes it harder for governments to accept U.S. arguments for strong action against countries it sees as threats. That’s why even if Venezuela is added to the list, it would not have the desired result — to convince the Maduro government to change its ways. Those ways though have little to do with terrorism. There is scant evidence to suggest that President Nicolas Maduro’s administration is providing material support to terrorist groups.  

Does the Venezuelan government fleece its people and behave as a corrupt actor? Yes. Does it act as a narco-state? Yes. However, those aren’t justifications for adding Venezuela to the rolls of terrorism-supporting countries. If Venezuela is added to the SST list, the Trump administration needs to be clear about the reasons — and they are, first and foremost, political.

Trump’s hope that the SST label will inspire behavioral change, or an internal leadership struggle in Venezuela, is highly unlikely. That should have happened already, since the average Venezuelan can’t buy basic foodstuffs. What is more likely is that such a declaration would only embolden the Maduro government. It also would provide the Bolivarian spin-machine a clear foil — the United States, which would take the blame for deprivations suffered by the Venezuelan people.

The international community is unlikely to support a U.S. decision to impose terrorism-specific sanctions on Venezuela if the application of those sanctions is based on a false pretense. Instead, the United States should consider other options. For example, the Trump administration could work with Congress and sanction countries that use official government mechanisms to proliferate drugs. Or, even better, create a multilateral solution at the United Nations with a targeted U.N. regime that lists Venezuelan entities and individuals who are engaged in non-terrorism-related illicit activities that destabilize the international community.  

How about this? Actually penalize the government of Venezuela for the things it does. The United States loses is “moral authority” when it uses labels inappropriately. Pursuing U.N. action or a new legal authority is hard work and would take time, but in the case of Venezuela, it’s the right course of action.

Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, where he also is director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism. From 2008 to August 2018, he was director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations. He was a member of the staff of former Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.).