Trump team threatens to wreck bipartisan consensus on Venezuela

Trump team threatens to wreck bipartisan consensus on Venezuela
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Inside Venezuela, the government and opposition are at each other’s throats, bitterly divided over the future of the oil-rich South American nation. In Washington, however, Venezuela has been a rare bright spot in the partisan wars that have inflamed debate on most issues, including foreign policy.

For those of us who have worked on Venezuela issues in the White House — whether under President Obama or President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist MORE — we found consensus on Capitol Hill on the urgency of Venezuela’s crisis and the appropriate U.S. response.

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Sanctions and resolutions attracted bipartisan sponsors and passed with overwhelming majorities. As the Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro cracked down on dissent, Democrats and Republicans championed opposition activists. 

Now, just as Venezuela’s crisis reaches a boiling point, that consensus is fracturing, with potentially significant consequences for U.S. policymaking.

Liberal Democrats have begun criticizing the Trump administration’s involvement in Venezuela — an approach Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) described as a coup d’état to “install a far-right opposition.” 

These critics are wrong on the merits. Far from supporting a coup, the White House rightly concluded that Maduro was a dictator. In 2016, he thwarted a recall referendum that would have removed him from office. The next year, as millions of Venezuelans gathered in protest, his security forces violently repressed demonstrators.

After clashing with the opposition-led National Assembly, he and his supreme court allies stripped lawmakers of their powers and established a Potemkin legislature, which he grandly named a “constituent assembly” and populated with cronies.

As of now, objections from far-left lawmakers do not reflect mainstream Democratic views on the Venezuela crisis. Indeed, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), has politely chided colleagues for questioning U.S. support for reviving Venezuela’s democracy.

But troublingly, recent Trump administration decisions threaten to open further cracks in the bipartisan consensus.

For months, the White House was reportedly preparing to name William Brownfield as special envoy for Venezuela. Brownfield has been confirmed four times by the Senate, served as ambassador in Caracas and is highly regarded on Capitol Hill.

In his last job, he led the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs bureau — a particularly relevant experience given the Venezuelan government’s notorious involvement in the cocaine trade.

Instead, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist US bans top Myanmar generals from country over attacks on Rohingya Muslims MORE selected Elliott Abrams, a controversial neoconservative best known for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. Abrams’s appointment unnecessarily polarizes this crisis at a time when unity is most needed.

Meanwhile, the administration’s aggressive rhetoric is spooking natural allies — both in Congress and throughout Latin America — who abhor Maduro but oppose a U.S. invasion. 

Pompeo assures that the State Department, not the Pentagon, “is in the lead” on Venezuela policy, but Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Trump recently asked him about a "military option."

On Monday, National Security Adviser John BoltonJohn Robert BoltonWill Iran 'break out' for a nuclear weapon, and what can Trump do? Hillicon Valley: FTC reportedly settles with Facebook for B fine | Trump calls to regulate Facebook's crypto project | Court rules Pentagon can award B 'war cloud' contract | Study shows automation will hit rural areas hardest Trump again considering dismissing intelligence chief Dan Coats: report MORE carried a yellow notepad to a press briefing that included a notation about a potential troop deployment to Colombia, Venezuela’s neighbor

The aggressive rhetoric might play well to the president’s base, but it has real consequences on U.S. partners. Abroad, the administration’s bellicosity risks isolating the United States from the remarkably successful regional and international coalition Obama and Trump have assembled.

At home, these statements — such as Trump’s repeated warnings that “all options are on the table” to topple Maduro — understandably make Democrats jittery. 

Monday’s decision to sanction Venezuela’s state-owned oil company also alienated some administration allies, who fear the humanitarian consequences of strangling Venezuela’s primary source of income.

Following the announcement, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a dogged Maduro critic, urged the White House “to avoid any collateral impact on the people of Venezuela.”

U.S. foreign policy is most effective when it enjoys broad support across party lines, as demonstrated by the decade-long, multibillion dollar U.S. support for Colombia, as it successfully battled drug traffickers and guerrillas. But Latin America has also provided examples of how partisan discord can upend U.S. foreign policy initiatives.

Just ask Elliot Abrams. When President Reagan tried to bolster anti-Marxist insurgencies in the Western Hemisphere, the Democratic House of Representatives opposed his vision and proscribed assistance to Nicaraguan rebels battling the leftist Sandinista government. White House attempts to preserve the policy led to the Iran-Contra scandal. 

More recently, after Obama condemned a 2009 coup in Honduras and refused to recognize the country’s new, de-facto leadership, several congressional Republicans muddled the U.S. position by celebrating the removal of leftist President Manuel Zelaya and traveling to Tegucigalpa to buoy the country’s isolated conservative government.

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So far, United States' Venezuela policy has avoided this fate. The country’s collapse disillusioned liberals who once romanticized Maduro’s mentor, former President Hugo Chávez, but who now lament the humanitarian crisis and Maduro’s human rights abuses. For conservatives, Venezuela’s socialist leadership is a longtime bête noire. 

White House strategy has helped maintain that unity. The United States has favored multilateral responses, including action by the Organization of American States. And until recently, United States policymakers avoided steps that would worsen food and medicine shortages or exacerbate Venezuela’s migration crisis. 

Today, as National Assembly leader and interim president Juan Guaidó mobilizes the Venezuelan public to demand a democratic transition, Venezuela’s opposition is more united than ever. It would be a shame if divisions in the United States undermined our support for Venezuela’s courageous people. 

Benjamin N. Gedan, a senior adviser to the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was responsible for South America policy at the White House under President Obama.