Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently denied that Russia was trying to create “another Syria” in Venezuela. Given Lavrov’s track record, we have to conclude that is precisely what Russia is doing.
We weren’t sufficiently paranoid about Syria. No one — myself included — foresaw that Russia and Iran would be able to use the cover of the Syrian civil war to establish permanent military presence in that country. We didn’t foresee Turkey’s perfidious alliance with Russia and Iran to keep Bashar Assad in power.
Syria wasn’t very significant before the Russians and Iranians dominated that country. But because they have, Syria is of strategic significance in the Middle East.
Venezuela has been transformed from an oil-rich nation into a failed state by the late Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro. Many of its people are literally starving, unable to barter or buy the essentials of life and living in near-constant nationwide blackouts at night.
Months ago, the only thing holding Venezuela together was Maduro’s military which — when it isn’t oppressing the people — is feeding itself from the profits it derives from drug trafficking. But now, with about 500 Russian mercenaries, at least 100 Russian regular troops, an unknown number of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops, and who-knows-how-many Cuban troops, Venezuela is being transformed into a major Russian-Iranian power base in South America.
President Trump and National Security Adviser John Bolton have both repeatedly asserted that “all options are on the table” with respect to Venezuela. The usual anonymous administration source was quoted Friday as saying that U.S. military intervention to oust Maduro was being very seriously considered.
Let’s pull back on the stick and gain some altitude over the slow-boiling crisis in Venezuela. U.S. military intervention there is necessary — even urgently so — but not to topple Maduro. That will be an effect but not, by any means, the fundamental reason for our action.
In 1823, President James Monroe delivered his state of the union message to Congress. The most important part has become known as the Monroe Doctrine.
The Monroe Doctrine was in four parts. First, the U.S. promised not to interfere in the internal affairs of any European state or in the then-frequent wars between them. Second, the U.S. promised not to interfere in colonies already held by European nations in the Western Hemisphere. Third, Monroe declared that the Western Hemisphere was closed to further colonialization. And, fourth, any attempt by a European nation to oppress or control any nation within the Western Hemisphere would be regarded as a hostile act against the United States.
The first part went by the boards in World Wars I and II. The other three still govern, demonstrated by quasi-colonies such as French Guyana on the northeast tip of South America and by our enforcement of them. In the 1840s, Britain and Spain were warned off from establishing interests on the West Coast by President Polk and in 1867, France withdrew from its attempted colonialization of Mexico when U.S. troops massed at the border.
The last time we enforced the Monroe Doctrine was in 1962 when the Soviet Union put nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba. The resulting Cuban Missile Crisis brought us closer to nuclear war than we had ever been, but the Soviets backed down.
The Russian-Iranian effort to establish themselves in Venezuela is no less a violation of the Monroe Doctrine — and a hostile act against the United States — than the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba. It differs only in the clarity and obviousness of the attendant threat to our national security.
Joint Russian-Iranian control of Venezuela is being accomplished rapidly. Maduro’s government is being propped up, oppressing Venezuelans and killing the slim hope of democracy there. De facto colonialization has been accomplished by the Russian-Iranian presence and formalized by agreements with Maduro.
The next step — increasing Russian and Iranian military and intelligence operations in Venezuela — is ongoing. Lavrov hinted at the obvious next step — building one or more military bases in Venezuela — and tried to justify it by blandly stating that the U.S. had military bases in many parts of the world.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is under the direct control of Iran’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Khamenei, is Iran’s principal terrorist force. It will be probably designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department today. That will be the first time an agency of any government has been so designated.
It is the IRGC that has by its own operations — and through its proxy force, the Lebanese Hizballah terrorist network — taken American lives by the hundreds in, for example, the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and in Iraq since late 2003.
There have been credible reports of Hizballah’s presence in northern Brazil and other South American nations for more than a decade. Either Hizballah or the IRGC itself was responsible for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish organization in Argentina that took almost 100 lives.
For Russia and Iran to have operational military and terrorist presence in Venezuela will enable their power to spread at whatever rate they can manage throughout Central and South America. Neither nation will give up its foothold in Venezuela peacefully.
Our national security interest in Venezuela is not to topple Maduro: it is to bar Russia and Iran from turning Venezuela into a power base in the Americas.
As every president should, Trump disdains foreign wars. But in the face of a determined effort to threaten our security that cannot otherwise be resolved, military action must be taken.
But 2019 is not 1962, and President Trump is not as clear a thinker or as decisive as was President Kennedy. So what do we do?
We cannot and should not use military force in every situation in which we have a national security interest: only in those situations where such an interest becomes vital to our national security. Nevertheless, Trump has to determine that we have a vital national security interest in preventing Russia and Iran from turning Venezuela into a strategic threat.
We can use economic weapons in conjunction with military action. Declaring the IRGC a foreign terrorist organization should have been accomplished years ago. The IRGC controls about half of the Iranian economy. It controls Iranian banks and finance as well as Iranian oil and gas, construction, real estate, and telecommunications. Any nation that trades with Iran — as many of our so-called NATO allies do — is trading with a terrorist organization and making it stronger. Declaring the IRGC a foreign terrorist organization will make that trade much harder to continue.
But that won’t result in withdrawal of either Russia or Iran from Venezuela. President Trump will have to enforce the Monroe Doctrine to effect that. And to do that Trump will have to do a lot more.
The president needs to build support among the American people for the next steps. He should give a major Oval Office speech to declare the Russian-Iranian growing power in Venezuela a threat to our national security and tell us that we have to throw them out by whatever means are necessary.
Trump has many options, each of which will have to confront Russia and Iran directly. He can, for example order an air and sea blockade of Venezuela to prevent Russia and Iran from building their power there. Yes, our forces are already stretched thin. Yes, he will be accused of wagging the dog to win the 2020 elections. Yes, the Democrats will say and do everything to oppose him. And, yes, many South American nations will condemn what we do. But action must be taken.
Time is not on our side. The longer we wait to take decisive action against Russia and Iran, the harder it will be to force them out of Venezuela. And forcing them out is, regrettably, our only option.