Will Venezuela and Iran Become Trump’s ‘Savage Wars of Peace’?
Nicolás Maduro is a thug and his government is a disaster, but the long history of Washington taking down foreign heads of state is a grim one.
PARIS — In case anyone doubted it, the Trump administration is now making a conspicuous link between its choreographed support for regime change in Venezuela and its desire to topple the mullahs in Iran.
On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted a tweet with three photographs: one showed Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro meeting with Iran’s “supreme leader” and its president, one with Maduro and Iran’s foreign minister, and then for good measure one from the archives of Maduro appearing alongside Raul Castro.
Umm, what results would those be, Mike?
Pompeo may be calling Maduro the “former” president of Venezuela since the head of the National Assembly in Caracas, Juan Guaidó, declared himself the legitimate interim head of state on Wednesday. But Maduro is still in the presidential palace, and his military and his vast militias are defending him.
Many countries besides the U.S. may be lending moral, diplomatic, and perhaps financial support to Guaidó, but others — including and especially Russia—are backing Maduro. Already there are reports that Vladimir Putin’s infamous semi-private military contractors are on the scene, and China, Iran and Cuba, yep, are longtime Maduro allies who continue to support him.
So, what if Maduro endures and the death toll just keeps going up, which seems very likely?
In fact, all this is reminiscent of the Obama administration’s much-deplored handling of the Arab Spring revolts eight years ago, particularly the Syrian uprising. Remember when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that dictator Bashar al Assad had "lost legitimacy," talking as if he were finished? That did not end well. As we know, sadly, it hasn’t ended yet. Russia and Iran saved the Syrian regime at the cost of millions displaced and some half a million people dead.
Obama critics argue that the U.S. should have intervened quickly, extensively and aggressively in Syria, at least from the air. Will they argue the same, now, in Venezuela?
Already some 30 people allegedly have been killed by Maduro’s thugs, and that toll will rise. What would be the right time for U.S. airstrikes? When hundreds are dead, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands?
Or, perhaps as in Panama after a U.S.-backed coup against Noriega collapsed in 1989, Washington will wait for an American to get killed by someone who is more or less affiliated with the dictator, then send in the Special Forces to take the tyrant out.
What comes next? That should always be the question when the U.S. goes in for regime change—although, weirdly, it often goes unasked, or is batted away with implausible answers like the utopian visions of Iraq that were supposed to kick in once Saddam Hussein was kicked out.
While we don’t have a crystal ball, we do have a lot of regime change history to inform us, and it’s not at all encouraging.
Where to begin? We could go back to the long history of American “filibusters,” some with at least tacit U.S. government support, who tried to impose slave-owning U.S.-friendly regimes in Central America before the American Civil War.
At the end of the 19th century, the U.S. fought to “liberate” colonies around the world from the yoke of the Spanish empire in order to gain strategic naval bases and bestow the highly equivocal benefits of American occupation. Rudyard Kipling rightly dubbed the result “the savage wars of peace.” The gruesome and largely forgotten fight against recalcitrant Filipinos cost hundreds of thousands of lives, with many men, women and children killed in systematic massacres by U.S. forces.
For more than 30 years after that, the United States carried out what became known as the Banana Wars, intervening to install more or less friendly and invariably corrupt client regimes in Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Those, too, are mostly forgotten now by everyone except Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Dominicans and Haitians.
In more recent memory, within the lifetime of aging boomers, the U.S. formula for regime change evolved to include covert as well as overt action. In the early 1950s the CIA engineered the overthrow of leftist President Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala after he challenged the power of American fruit companies. (Yes, those bananas again.) And the CIA coordinated with the British Secret Intelligence Service to pull off the “counter-coup” that brought down Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and restored the Shah to power, which worked out great, until it didn’t.
Sometimes America’s rhetoric surpassed its ability or willingness to act, most conspicuously when the U.S. overtly and covertly encouraged the 1956 uprising against the Soviets in Hungary, then walked away as Moscow retaliated and held on to power.
In the 1960s, the agency tried to take out Fidel Castro by organizing the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was a total humiliation for young President John F. Kennedy. But that did not stop the CIA from participating in the plot that ended with the assassination of Congo’s first post-colonial president, Patrice Lumumba. And it did not stop JFK from supporting the coup that brought down the corrupt dictator of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem—to no very good end.
In 1973, the overthrow of Chile’s communist President Salvador Allende and the installation of the infamous Pinochet dictatorship often are laid at the door of the United States and, indeed, of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. But after the protracted trauma of the Vietnam War and its ignoble conclusion in 1975, the United States in the 1970s lost some of its enthusiasm for regime change.
Enter the Reagan administration, convinced the country needed to win back its honor and prove it could act as a world power after the debacle in Southeast Asia and the humiliation of the Iran embassy hostage siege.
Reagan pursued a series of covert operations aimed at bringing down communist-backed regimes in Nicaragua (a failure until the Soviet Union itself pulled the plug in 1989), Angola (a failure), and Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden was among the “holy warriors” fighting the godless communists with support from Washington.
Elsewhere there developed a now familiar formula for direct U.S. intervention: pressure, denounce, and poke at a regime until it retaliates in some fashion, preferably by threatening or killing American citizens.
Thus Reagan invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, where the Cubans were building an airstrip. The pretext: a threat to American students at a medical school there.
Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was a favorite Reagan target, especially when Washington discovered it did not have the resources or will to eliminate the leaders of Iran and Syria, who were accused of many of the same sorts of crimes. The U.S. challenged his claims on territorial waters and airspace, shooting down his warplanes. It accused him of plotting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, it endorsed the sensational accusation that he was “the most dangerous man in the world.” And in 1986, when his agents were caught bombing a disco in Berlin, killing two American servicemen, American warplanes bombed the hell out of every place Gaddafi was known to live, work and sleep.
Still he survived, and turned his terrorist focus on American targets, including the U.S. airliner blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Gradually the U.S. and other western countries made peace with him, but in 2011, when Libyans took to the streets to demand his overthrow, European and U.S. forces got ready to intervene.
They waited, watching for an atrocity that could give them a pretext. When Gaddafi vowed to carry out a massacre in restive Benghazi, they took that as a pretext. After months of fighting, he fell and was tortured to death. And the country has faced various degrees of chaos ever since.
Whatever one thinks of Nicolás Maduro—and there’s no question he he has been a terrible president heading up a disastrous regime—one has to wonder if the Trump administration has any idea what a mess it's about to get into by trying to bring him down.
Personally, I doubt it.