President Obama just issued an executive order branding Venezuela a national security threat and imposing sanctions against seven officials of Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government.
Obama’s action continues an unfortunate U.S. foreign policy habit of promiscuously invoking the concept of national security. Too often, Washington purports to believe that if a foreign government is corrupt or treats its own citizens badly, it automatically menaces the American republic. That notion is not only absurd, it foments international instability and in some cases even entangles the United States in unnecessary conflicts.
The executive order directed against Venezuela is a textbook example of an overly broad definition of national security. The White House stressed that the order targeted officials whose actions undermined democratic processes or institutions, abused human rights, were involved in prohibiting or penalizing freedom of expression, or were guilty of corruption. White House spokesman Josh Earnest declared that the United States now had the tools to block the financial assets of Venezuelan officials “past and present” who dare “violate the human rights of Venezuelan citizens and engage in acts of public corruption.”
There is little question that Venezuela’s government is corrupt and autocratic. My Cato Institute colleague Juan Carlos Hidalgo has ably documented the abuses committed by both Maduro and his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez. Venezuela today is an economic mess presided over by an increasingly insecure, undemocratic political elite.
But a misgoverned country, even a grotesquely misgoverned one, does not necessarily pose a credible threat to the security of the United States. Maduro may be an intolerant clown, but he has done little of substance to worry the global superpower. Indeed, his principal offense, even more than that of Chávez, has been to make rude or preposterous allegations against Washington.
In January 2015, Maduro charged that the United States was orchestrating the plunge in global oil prices to destroy regimes of oil producing countries that refused to do Washington’s bidding. Such an allegation may reflect a cynical desire to whip-up anti-U.S. feelings on the part of populations who don’t understand the role of global supply and demand in determining commodity prices, but the attempt is more laughable than threatening.
The same could be said of Chávez’s infamous September 2006 speech to the UN General Assembly, in which he explicitly compared George W. Bush to the devil, complete with the assertion that he had smelled brimstone after Bush’s address to the gathering.
Indeed, Washington could have made a more credible case during Chávez’s presidency that Caracas posed a threat to U.S. security than it can currently. During those years, the Venezuelan regime established ties with radical insurgent groups in neighboring countries (especially Colombia) and forged increasingly close relations with Russia, China, and Iran—countries that U.S. officials viewed with suspicion or (in Iran’s case) open hostility. The connections that Chávez developed with Moscow and Beijing raised concerns about peer competitors of the United States gaining economic, political, and perhaps even military footholds in the Western Hemisphere. The onset of ties with Iran added worries about state-sponsored terrorism.
During the Chavez era, a Russian general spoke of the possibility of Russia acquiring a military base in Venezuela. While civilian leaders in both Caracas and Moscow quietly disavowed such intentions, Russian naval forces conducted joint maneuvers with Venezuelan units, and there was a proliferation of arms sales, which topped the $4 billion mark by September 2009. In 2012, Chávez announced another $4 billion “loan” from Russia to purchase tanks, air-defense missiles, and other hardware.
Chávez’s courtship of Iran seemed even more troubling. At one point, he even hinted that his country might have nuclear ambitions (albeit, he insisted, of a purely peaceful nature), and Tehran could be a source of both expertise and technology on that front.
Yet the Obama administration correctly viewed such flamboyant posturing by Chávez and his populist “Bolivarian” allies elsewhere in Latin America more as an annoyance than a credible threat. That restraint makes the new executive order directed against the less internationally adventurous Maduro government especially unwarranted.
Unfortunately, Obama’s action may signal the abandonment of a restrained, discriminating policy and a return to the overuse of national security justifications in previous administrations. It was not that long ago that U.S. officials asserted, apparently while maintaining straight faces, that such modest adversaries as North Vietnam, Serbia, Iraq, and Cuba posed dire national security threats. The results were frustrating, counterproductive, and, in the cases of Vietnam and Iraq, disastrous. One might hope that we have moved beyond such folly.
It is imperative to adopt a more rigorous standard about what does and does not constitute a threat to national security. A foreign regime’s domestic behavior, however reprehensible, does not per se pose a security threat to America. The actions of Maduro and his henchmen fall into that category. Venezuela’s government is riddled with corruption and behaves in a disturbingly repressive fashion toward political opponents. But that makes Venezuela an obnoxious neighbor, not a security threat to the United States.