Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Venezuela’s Murderous Regime

A new United Nations investigation underscores the brutal nature of Nicolas Maduro’s government in Venezuela. As reported in the July 4 edition of the New York Times, UN investigators found that Venezuelan Special Action Forces “have carried out thousands of extrajudicial killings in the past 18 months and then manipulated crime scenes to make it look as if the victims had been resisting arrest.” In essence, government security units acted as death squads to eliminate regime opponents.

The death toll is shockingly large. Security forces “killed 5,287 people in 2018 and another 1,569 by mid-May of this year, in what are officially termed by the Venezuelan government ‘Operations for the Liberation of the People.’” The campaign of cold-blooded mass murder is made worse by the government’s cynical, Orwellian euphemism.

The UN document concludes that the actual number of killings may be even larger, noting that some independent reports put the total extrajudicial executions for “resistance to authority,” at well over 9,000. That higher number would come as no surprise to opponents of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Critics have alleged for years that forces loyal to Maduro and Chavez have kidnapped, tortured, and murdered political adversaries.

In addition to the death squad outrages, the UN report confirms the Maduro government’s other crimes. Men and women detained for political reasons “were subjected to one or more forms of torture, including electric shock, suffocation with plastic bags, water boarding, beating and sexual violence.”

The UN revelations underscore an important distinction that critics of U.S. policy toward Venezuela must make. It is appropriate to criticize all forms of U.S. meddling in that country’s internal political affairs, including the continuation of U.S. economic sanctions that have worsened the misery of the already suffering Venezuelan people. Such sanctions merely inconvenience the country’s corrupt, socialist elite but have a much greater impact on ordinary citizens. Sanctions also give Maduro and his cronies a convenient, phony excuse for Venezuela’s mounting economic woes.

Americans certainly are justified in denouncing the trial balloons that the Trump administration has sent aloft about using military force to remove Maduro from power. By providing diplomatic and financial backing to the competing government of Juan Guaido, the United States already is excessively involved in Venezuela’s internal affairs. A military intervention would make matters even worse and could entangle the United States in yet another regime-change, nation-building quagmire. Maduro’s misguided supporters have the capability to mount a sustained resistance to a U.S.-led military occupation.

Opposing U.S. meddling, though, in no way requires critics to ignore, minimize, or excuse, the Maduro regime’s increasingly well-documented economic and human-rights abuses. Some left-wing opponents of Washington’s flirtation with another regime-change crusade are prone to conflate resistance to such a policy with acting as apologists for Maduro. The morally appropriate position is to oppose intervention but denounce Maduro for his corrupt, murderous dictatorship. The new UN report should erase all doubt about the shameful nature of his rule. If Guaido and his followers ultimately prevail (although that outcome is increasingly doubtful) decent people in the United States and around the world should rejoice that another regime that abuses human rights has ended up on the ash heap of history.

A Different Sort of 4th of July Celebration

On July 4, 1821, then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, delivered a now-famous address here in Washington, DC. I discuss the speech in my latest book, Peace, War, and Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy, and it is featured in this “Liberty Chronicles” episode (dramatic reading starts around the 17 minute mark).

If you haven’t read the speech in its entirety, you might find it worthwhile. Some are familiar with Adams’s admonition that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” The veteran diplomat and scholar George Kennan invoked that passage in an essay in Foreign Affairs, and it even serves as one of the founding principles for a new organization named after John Quincy. Others have scorned Adams’s sage advice as synonymous with “cowardice and dishonor,” arguing instead that America is made great by frequent monster-searching and destroying. That they cling to such beliefs despite the counterproductive military adventures of the last several decades suggests that no amount of pleading could convince them of Adams’s timeless wisdom.

But there’s so much more to the speech! To be sure, some elements are anachronistic, or just downright bizarre (e.g. Themistocles? fustian romance and lascivious lyrics!?). And Adams certainly wasn’t aiming for brevity. This kind of thing simply can’t be crammed into even a hundred 240-character tweets. But his words are important because they spell out so clearly a positive vision for America’s role in the world. He speaks eloquently of what America can accomplish, and what Americans are for, not merely what we’re against.

For example, if the philosophers and inventors “of the older world” ever asked, “What has America done for the benefit of mankind?” Adams had a ready answer.

America, he said:

has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to [other nations] the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, equal justice, and equal rights.


Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be….She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. 


Her glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her declaration: this has been…her practice.

There’s been a fair amount of commentary about the way that the current occupant of the White House plans to celebrate the 4th. I’m reasonably confident that JQA wouldn’t approve. You decide. 

Trump’s “Cakewalk” Fantasy about an Iran War

Although President Trump apparently called off a planned airstrike on Iran at the last minute in late June, he subsequently warned Iranian leaders that the military option was still very much on the table. He emphasized that if the United States used force against Iran, Washington would not put boots on the ground but would wage the conflict entirely with America’s vast air power. Trump exhibited no doubt about the outcome, asserting that such a war “wouldn’t last very long,” and that it would mean the “obliteration” of Iran.

His boast was eerily reminiscent of the statement that Kenneth Adelman, a former assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a prominent figure in the U.S. foreign policy community, made prior to the Iraq War. Adelman famously predicted that a war to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would be a “cakewalk.”

The notion that a looming war will produce a quick, definitive victory for the “right” side is a fantasy that has lured numerous statesman throughout history. Occasionally, the prediction even turns out to be true, as it did for the United States in the 1898 Spanish American War and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Far more often, though, a predicted “cakewalk” turns into a multi-year human meat grinder, as in the U.S. Civil War and World War I. Even if subsequent events do not produce a bloodbath on such a monstrous scale, the war frequently becomes a prolonged, futile, and counterproductive mission. Washington’s military interventions in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan fall into that category.

Trump’s rosy assurance that a war against Iran would be easy, quick, and decisive is especially misplaced. As I outline in a National Interest Online article, Tehran has multiple ways to retaliate for a U.S. attack, including using its Shia religious allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain to damage U.S. military and commercial targets, as well as inflict casualties on U.S. military personnel. Even pinprick attacks can cause a distressing toll over time, and Iran is more than capable of mounting such a campaign.

Unfortunately, President Trump is hardly the only one who embraces the delusion that a war against Iran would be the proverbial cakewalk. Ultra-hawkish Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), a rising conservative star in the Republican Party, quipped that the conflict would be over in two strikes, “the first strike and the last strike.”

That is a frighteningly cavalier attitude. It’s worthwhile recalling how Adelman’s prediction of a cakewalk war in Iraq turned out. At last count, the United States has spent well over a trillion dollars trying to pacify and stabilize Iraq. Worse, more than 4,400 American soldiers have perished in that effort, with thousands more suffering wounds—many of them severely life-altering.

A war against Iran likely would be much worse. Iran is a larger country, both in terms of area and population. Although the Iranian military has been weakened over the years as a result of U.S.-led international economic sanctions, it still is substantially more capable than Saddam Hussein’s decrepit army and the ragtag insurgent militias the United States later confronted in Iraq. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a military veteran and an outspoken candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, likely is correct that a war in Iran would make the Iraq War look like a cakewalk. That outcome would be a bitterly ironic fulfillment of Adelman’s prediction about the earlier conflict. President Trump would be wise not to venture down such a perilous path.

One Especially Myopic Criticism of Trump’s North Korea Policy

The video of President Trump shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and becoming the first sitting U.S. president to cross the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into North Korea should have been a welcome sight in both East Asia and the United States. It was a powerful symbol of warming relations between Washington and Pyongyang—a process that had stumbled in February when a summit meeting abruptly ended in an impasse.

Trump’s domestic critics, though, seem unwilling to accord him any credit for his diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea and the easing of dangerous tensions that have plagued the Korean Peninsula for seven decades. Of the many criticisms directed at Trump, the most annoying and unrealistic one is that even choosing to interact with Kim reflects questionable judgment. Some opponents denounce the president for meeting with such an odious tyrant under any circumstances; others insist that Trump at least should have refused to do so until Pyongyang made major, irreversible steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Both criticisms show a disturbing lack of realism about how diplomacy must be conducted and what objectives can be achieved.

A popular cliché in American foreign policy and journalistic circles is that merely meeting with Kim accords the tyrant undeserved ”legitimacy.” Indeed, that accusation was prevalent regarding the earlier summits in Singapore and Hanoi. Senator Chuck Schumer, for example, issued a statement following the Singapore summit that Trump had given “a brutal and repressive dictatorship the international legitimacy it has long craved.” Such complaints have gained new volume after the meeting at the DMZ.

Those objections are shockingly naïve. Effective diplomacy requires a willingness to engage unpleasant regimes and leaders. Indeed, U.S. presidents have routinely done so throughout the history of the republic. Several summits took place with Soviet dictators during the Cold War, and the normalization of U.S. relations with Communist China occurred because Richard Nixon was willing not only to open a dialogue with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, but travel to China to start the process. Any progress with North Korea would be unlikely if President Trump followed the advice of his critics and refused even to meet with Kim Jong-un.

The slightly more sophisticated criticism that no summit should have been held until Pyongyang made preemptive concessions on the nuclear issue is nearly as unrealistic. As I discuss in a recent National Interest Online article, it is doubtful that North Korea will ever relinquish its small nuclear arsenal. But if Pyongyang does take that step, it will occur only after prolonged, difficult negotiations with a substantial amount of give and take on both sides.

What Trump’s critics seek is capitulation, not negotiation. But such a one-sided outcome almost never occurs except when a country is decisively defeated in war. One hopes that those politicians and pundits who demand Pyongyang’s capitulation are not implicitly advocating a war against North Korea. Absent that scenario, though, their insistence on massive, preemptive concessions makes no sense.

President Trump does have a tendency to oversell his successes, and he has done so regarding his personal diplomacy with Kim. Significant tensions remain on the Korean Peninsula, and because of Washington’s foolish insistence on keeping U.S. forces in South Korea as a tripwire, this country continues to run needless risks. But it is a good development when tensions decline even modestly, and U.S. and North Korean leaders are smiling rather than snarling at each other. A succession of U.S. administrations refused to engage North Korea even as the already toxic bilateral relationship worsened. President Trump appears to have abandoned that futile course, and for his decision he deserves credit and support, not petty criticism.

Joe Biden on Impeachment for Illegal Warmaking

I don’t know if the moderators of tonight’s Democratic primary debate are taking requests, but here’s my question for former vice-president—and current frontrunner—Joe Biden:

“Mr. Biden, the last time you were running for president, you promised that if George W. Bush ‘takes this nation to war in Iran, without congressional approval, I will make it my business to impeach him.’ Now, over a decade later, war with Iran is again on the horizon, and just this Monday, the president said he does not need congressional authorization to wage war. If he acts on that belief, will you call for Congress to impeach President Trump?” 

In December 2007, when then-Senator Biden made those remarks, the crowd in Davenport Iowa answered with hearty cheers.

At the time, there was a serious concern that President Bush would use prior congressional authorizations–like the 2002 Iraq War resolution or the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (2001 AUMF)–as cover for a new war with Iran. A month before Biden’s speech, then-Senator Barack Obama introduced a joint resolution designed to foreclose that option. “There is absolutely no reason to trust that this Administration will not use existing congressional authorization to justify military action against Iran,” Obama warned.

Here we are again: now, nearly 12 years later, there’s no reason to trust that this administration won’t use the 2001 AUMF as justification for war with Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested as much, behind closed doors, to members of the House Armed Services Committee. 

Joe Biden knows something about the 2001 AUMF: he voted for it, three days after 9/11. And, like practically every other member who passed that resolution, he described it as a limited measure, aimed at those who were responsible for the attacks. As the New York Times reported after the vote: “Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Congress was not ceding its constitutional authority to declare war or intending to write a measure like the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which President Lyndon B. Johnson used in 1964 to justify escalation of the war in Vietnam.” 

The 2001 AUMF has now been in effect almost three times as long as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and the current administration thinks it can draw on that authority to wage war over the “Gulf of Oman incident.”  

In the short term, Congress has limited means available to it for heading off war. Most of the measures currently being debated on the Hill would have to make it past a presidential veto. A sense-of-Congress resolution threatening impeachment for unauthorized warmaking would not. Biden’s no longer in a position to do more than advocate such a move, but it seems to fit with how he described his 2007 impeachment threat: “a prescriptive way to make clear to this man that there will be severe consequences, because [attacking Iran] would be the most dire action we could take at this moment.” Back then, Biden insisted that an unauthorized strike on Iran would be an impeachable offense. Does he still think so today? 

If he got the question, my guess is that Biden would answer, “yes.” Willingness to use the dreaded “I-word” might help shield the Democratic frontrunner from attacks on his left flank. Of course, given Biden’s service as vice president in an administration that ran roughshod over congressional war powers—that answer might also give rise to some awkward questions. But this is the business he’s chosen. 


Previewing Trump’s Trip to Seoul: There’s Something Happening Here

President Trump’s upcoming visit to South Korea has gained new importance. Several developments over the last month suggest that something big is about to happen, though it is unclear what this “something” is precisely. Trump’s two-day summit with Moon Jae-in should provide greater clarity and help make sense of the interesting signals that the various players in North Korean nuclear diplomacy have recently sent out.

After the collapse of the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi four months ago, diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang settled into a stalemate. In mid-April, Kim Jong-un gave an address to the Supreme People’s Assembly that underscored his frustration. Kim kept the door open for diplomacy, but he demanded a change in the U.S. negotiating position before the end of the year and warned of unspecified consequences should the impasse persist. Pyongyang also reversed earlier dismantlement of a satellite launching facility, flight tested a new type of short-range ballistic missile, and refused to participate in an operation to recover the remains of soldiers killed in the Korean War to signal their displeasure.

The stalemate appears to have shifted recently. June saw a flurry of interesting diplomatic activity that began with Trump receiving a “very warm” letter from Kim on June 11. Shortly after the news about Kim’s letter broke, Lee Hee-ho, first lady of South Korea from 1998-2003, passed away. Lee’s husband Kim Dae-jung made history in 2000 as the first South Korean president to visit North Korea. Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong went to Panmunjom, where she delivered a message of condolence signed by her brother and met briefly with senior South Korean government officials. The short conversation was the first public interaction between high-ranking North and South Korean officials since Hanoi.

South Korean president Moon Jae-in joined the fray next. During a visit to Oslo on June 12, Moon gave a speech calling for peace, saying: “The establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula means a complete dismantling of the last vestiges of the Cold War structure in Northeast Asia.” He also pushed for a “deepening of mutual understanding and trust” between the United States and North Korea and reiterated that he was ready to meet with Kim at any time.

The next major development was Xi Jinping’s visit to Pyongyang from June 20-21, the first visit of a Chinese head of state and head of the Communist Party of China to North Korea in 14 years. State media reports emphasized Xi’s support for the new strategic line that Kim first announced in April 2018 that places a premium on economic development, and said that Xi welcomed Kim’s efforts to resolve the denuclearization issue through diplomacy.

The Kim-Xi summit had two important impacts on nuclear diplomacy. First, Xi’s support for Kim should help settle debates among the North Korean elite about the value of both talking with the United States and shifting resources away from the military. Domestic politics are still important, even in a regime where so much power is concentrated in one individual. Having Xi clearly on Kim’s side should help the latter quiet any dissent about his policies.

Second, the summit reiterated the important role that China could play in breaking the current U.S.-North Korea impasse. Put differently by Stimson Center expert Yun Sun, “Xi is signaling to Trump that China cannot be marginalized in its own backyard and the United States should seek China’s cooperation in addressing an issue that it cannot solve independently.”

The final important June development occurred the day after Xi returned to China, when the Rodong Sinmun, the daily newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea, ran a front-page story showing Kim reading a letter sent to him by Donald Trump. Kim “expressed satisfaction after reading the personal letter, saying that it contains excellent content,” and praised Trump for his “political judgement and extraordinary courage.” According to NK News, the letter was delivered before Xi’s visit, which suggests that the report was purposely delayed so it would appear after the Kim-Xi summit.

So many interesting developments involving high-level officials in such a short period of time increases the likelihood that Trump’s upcoming visit to Seoul will produce something important that moves the United States out of the post-Hanoi rut. But to repeat for emphasis: it is impossible to predict what will happen in Seoul this weekend. Trump could adopt a new negotiating position that is more to Kim’s liking, or he could expand negotiations to other topics like ending the Korean War and broader relationship building. There’s also a possibility that these promising signals are being misread and, like Stephen Biegun’s speech at Stanford before Hanoi, subsequent events will bring everyone back to a disappointing reality.  

As the Buffalo Springfield song goes: “There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear.” Further speculation on what developments could come out of Trump’s Seoul visit are unwarranted, but given all the recent activity outlined above a boring summit seems out of the question.

A War on Press Freedoms in the Name of National Security

One reliable bipartisan characteristic of U.S. leaders is an obsession with shaping the foreign policy narrative and concealing any information that contradicts their version of events. Indeed, many of them harbor the desire to prosecute anyone who leaks classified material that exposes blunders, lies or crimes. Two events in the past few weeks demonstrate that the desire to squash such disclosures is running at high tide: the attempt to extradite and prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on espionage charges, and President Trump’s angry outburst accusing the New York Times of “treason” for its story disclosing U.S. cyberattacks on Russia’s power grid.

The Trump administration seems eager to go after troublesome journalists—a course that previous administrations generally have avoided since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case. The actual extent of that decision’s protection typically has been overstated, however. The Court rejected the administration’s bid for prior restraint—the use of censorship to bar publication–but did not explicitly address the question of whether authorities could prosecute journalists once a story using classified documents appeared. Individuals who leak items to the press remained as vulnerable as ever to prosecution for espionage, but members of the press have enjoyed de facto immunity. Officials seemed wary that post-publication attempts to prosecute press outlets might run afoul of the courts as well.

With the attempt to prosecute Julian Assange, that situation threatens to change dramatically. There actually have been warning signs for some time, especially during Barack Obama’s administration. The government named Fox News reporter James Rosen as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in an espionage case against his source. Similarly, the administration asserted that it had the right to prosecute New York Times reporter James Risen, who had printed leaked classified information, although it chose not to take that step. Those were ominous signals.

I discuss the importance of the Assange case for preserving press freedoms in a new article in the July-August issue of the American Conservative. The government’s strategy is especially insidious. Federal officials argue that whatever the relevance of the Pentagon Papers precedent, it doesn’t apply in this case because Assange is not a real journalist engaged in legitimate journalism. Instead, he is allegedly a co-conspirator with Chelsea Manning and other individuals who illicitly leaked classified information. Therefore, the argument goes, he has committed espionage, and any legal protections that legitimate journalists might enjoy should not extend to his behavior. John Demers, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for National Security, stated that thesis explicitly. “Julian Assange is no journalist,” Demers sneered.

Unfortunately, when British authorities arrested Assange in April, many American establishment journalists cheered the move. Such attitudes partly reflect resentment at an upstart player who has broken several blockbuster stories. Legacy publications are less than thrilled about blogs and other online competitors that have sprouted during the twenty-first century. Many prominent mainstream publications also exhibit special resentment toward Assange because he expresses open animosity toward U.S. foreign policy, while those publications usually have backed Washington’s often blundering overseas commitments and initiatives. Whatever their motives, such outlets are adopting a dangerously misguided stance. Successfully prosecuting Assange and WikiLeaks for espionage would be a devastating threat to a free and independent press in the United States.

We must not allow the government to decide who is or is not a “legitimate” journalist. Yet that is exactly Washington’s ploy in the Assange case. If federal prosecutors prevail with that argument and eventually convict him of espionage, the implicit protections that the Pentagon Papers ruling has afforded the press will be severely diluted. Only legacy publications friendly to the national security bureaucracy could then count on government restraint—and as Trump’s outburst against the New York Times for its Russia cyberwar article demonstrates, even that expectation could become quite fragile. Obstreperous online outlets and their writers would routinely find themselves under threat of criminal prosecution if they dared publish a negative story based on classified information. At a minimum, there would be a pronounced chilling effect on (already insufficient) foreign policy dissent in the media.