The administration conducts official international negotiations, not the Congress, unless the Congress is specifically authorized to do so.
There’s a big looming deadline with the arms embargo on Iran about to expire. You told Al-Monitor two months ago that you’d support trying to re-up this embargo and “the nuclear deal doesn’t exist today,” so we would need more leverage going back into it.
Right now, the Trump administration is hinting that they want to re-up the arms embargo with this controversial unilateral snapback mechanism. Russia has said that it’s a non-starter, Iran has said that this will cause the deal to “die forever,” and the Europeans don’t seem very thrilled with it.
Do you think this is the path to go down to restore the embargo, and if so, how much political capital should we be willing to spend on it?
The JCPOA [nuclear deal] does not exist any longer. We violated the terms of the agreement, and thus compliance with it by other parties is now voluntary. It’s ridiculous for the administration to suggest that it can pick and choose the parts of the JCPOA that it wants to observe and enforce.
That’s a wonderful way to approach an international agreement: “I will not comply with the portions that my country is subject to, but I expect you to the portions that your country is subject to.”
I believe that the arms embargo is important and it needs to stay in place, and I think the Trump administration has put us in an awful position, because it is harder than ever to reimpose the arms embargo outside of the JCPOA.
I don’t have a lot of creative advice for the administration, other than get back inside the JCPOA, because if you’re inside the JCPOA, it makes an arms embargo much easier to reinstate.
They just vetoed the war powers resolution [related to Iran], which, if I’m correct, is the second time both houses of Congress have ever passed one. The first one was the Yemen war, which you were very much a part of. I’m curious why you chose Yemen as the test case for taking back war powers for Congress from the executive.
Obviously, Yemen and Iran are very different. We were and, to an extent, still are, actively engaged in fighting in Yemen. There’s a partial ceasefire today, but during most of the last five years, the United States has been actively involved in a war inside Yemen without authorization from Congress.
The Iranian war powers resolution is a little different, because we are not actively engaged in active hostilities with Iran. That war powers resolution was, frankly, more forward-looking to make sure that we didn’t fall into an unauthorized war with Iran.
But in Yemen, there were people dying every day due to U.S. planes and U.S. bombs.
It was a war that was making the United States less safe, every single day. Al Qaeda and ISIS were growing their power every day inside Yemen. Yemenis were being radicalized against the United States. The humanitarian catastrophe was being looked upon globally as the responsibility of the United States. It was cratering our reputation internationally.
It was a disaster on all fronts. I felt it was imperative that we pull the United States out of it. I still feel that way.
I’m glad that Congress passed the war powers resolution, and I’m sorry that the president still sees fit to blindly follow the Saudis into a war that may be in the Saudis’ best interest but is certainly not in ours.
We’re going to jump all the way across the world [now]. In Venezuela last week, we saw this very bizarre armed clash—it’s unclear exactly what happened, but apparently there were Americans involved.
You told the Trump administration that “[e]ither the U.S. government was unaware of these planned operations, or was aware and allowed them to proceed. Both possibilities are problematic.”
What do you think we could be doing better in terms of our Venezuela policy, both in terms of the incident that just happened and our more general stance towards [rival claimants to the Venezuelan presidency] Guaidó and Maduro?
Our Venezuela policy has been an absolute disaster. All it’s done has made Maduro stronger. It’s built on fantasy, and it needs to be based on reality.
What we did was play all of our cards right at the initial moment, which is generally Trump’s overall strategy in foreign policy. There’s no nuance. There’s no strategy. There’s no long-term play.
We should have built a regional and international coalition to ratchet up pressure on Maduro, and give him a way out. Instead, we immediately recognized Guaidó.
We put perhaps the worst possible person in place as our envoy—a capable diplomat, but somebody who is ready-made to be cast as an American imperialist by the Venezuelan regime.
And ultimately, we came off looking powerless, weak, and feckless, because we backed Guaidó and we couldn’t do anything about it.
I think it’s really hard to restart at this point. I’ve suggested imposing an aid-for-food program, in which we—I’m sorry, an oil-for-aid program—in which we relax some of our sanctions policy in exchange for any revenues going directly to aid the Venezuelan people.
I think that our totally dysfunctional relationship with Russia and China greatly hamstrings our ability to try to pressure the Venezuelan regime. The next administration’s going to have to find a way to work with Russia and China on Venezuela policy.
Having no diplomatic relationship with Cuba also hurts.
The Trump administration is in a position where they can’t win in Venezuela, and the next administration is going to essentially have to restart our Venezuela policy from scratch.
I don’t know what happened last week. I trust that the American government wasn’t involved. But if we didn’t know that this operation was being planned, that shows you how disconnected from reality we are inside the country.
We’re going to get another administration in either less than a year, or in four years. What’s your advice to them to undo the damage that’s been incurred?
The first thing Joe Biden’s going to have to do is convince hundreds of capable diplomats who fled the Trump administration to come back. We simply don’t have the personnel right now to represent the United States abroad. We’re going to have to restock our diplomatic corps.
Second, a Democratic administration is going to have to recognize that we are [unintelligible] in terms of where our resources are. We’re spending $13 billion on global public health today compared to $740 billion on military operations. That makes no sense.
We’re going to have to change the way that we spend our money.
And we’re going to have to do some hard work to prove to the world that the Trump administration’s wholesale withdrawal from global institutions was an anomaly.
There’s just not as much room as there used to be at the table for the United States, because China has taken up so much of it.
We’re going to have to do some hard work to rejoin international forums and convince countries to join us, rather than the Chinese, who have gradually stepped into the vacuum we’ve created.
Matthew Petti is a national security reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @matthew_petti.