The curious similarity between U.S. policy toward Iran and Venezuela, despite the enormous differences between the regimes of those two countries, raises the question of whether or not what U.S. politicians for a decade have portrayed as issues of national security might instead be about pursuing private elite agendas at the expense of U.S. national security.
U.S. decision-makers surveying the world see a murky combination of chaos and hostile intent against a roiling background of countries collapsing toward chaos and on the make, with the sure knowledge that any one of either the former or the latter might suddenly acquire hostile intent. U.S. decision-makers also see an endless array of seductive opportunities, any one of which might turn out to offer critical protection against some as yet unseen threat. Conversely, almost none of our nightmares actually comes true, and an aggressive “defense” looks to everyone else just like offensive, and thus provokes the very hostility one was worrying about, in addition to costing more than any society can afford (even one that had a solid educational system, a population willing to sacrifice, a creative foreign policy focused on the long term, an economy managed for productivity rather than self-enrichment of a self-indulgent class of wealthy manipulators, a patriotic elite, and leaders committed to the common welfare). So decision-makers are, inevitably and forever, stuck in the quicksand of a dilemma: since all clearheaded decision-makers are well aware they simply cannot get it right in this complex world, should they err on the side of risk-taking or err on the side of risk-aversion?
That choice is a dilemma precisely because the question cannot be answered. It depends, and it depends on knowing everything: not facts, those are easy and usually not even very important. It depends on knowing all the multiple causes, how those causal factors interact, and, since each moves at its own variable pace, what the implications of all the different delays might be. (The serious reader is referred to system dynamics and complexity theory.) That is why “everything” is unknowable and why decision-makers thus cannot get it right. This truth means that they protest with some justice that the criticism of outsiders amounts to taking an easy shot.
But decision-makers should not protest too much. There are some guidelines that sincere decision-makers should follow, and decision-makers deserve all the criticism they get for violating them. Among the worst violations are using classification to protect themselves from embarrassment and the passing of special laws for their personal profit. The former is so common that a citizen should assume it is always the purpose of classification unless in possession of clear and specific information suggesting the contrary. As for the latter–an obvious conflict of interest, perhaps the most egregious example is Pinochet’s cute little 1978 law legally absolving him and his friends from responsibility for anything they might have done or do in the future. As a general principle, amnesty for decision-makers is a very red flag.
Another guideline is that decision-makers should retain flexibility and avoid egregiously putting themselves (and, more to the point, their country) in a box. One should, for example, never make the refusal to talk a matter of principle. The operative principle is the benefit of one’s country (or perhaps, for the high-minded) of mankind, not the childish arrogance of pouting and refusing to talk. One should always be looking for opportunities to better the national interest. Sponsoring coups, murdering scientists, committing economic warfare, marginalizing adversaries, spying with drones, committing cyber warfare may, unfortunately, sometimes be called for, as long as international law remains weak, but the exclusive use of such extreme tactics without any serious attempt to put on the table “all options” (e.g., listening to the adversary, allowing the adversary breathing room, offering positive-sum deals) opens decision-makers to the very fair charge that they are insincere, that they in fact seek not resolution but conflict.
With all the above as context, we may consider the example of U.S. policy toward two of its favorite enemies of the moment: Ahmadinejad and Chavez. The question is straight-forward:
Do U.S. decision-makers treat these two leaders as serious adversaries out of sincere conviction that they represent threats to U.S. national security or do U.S. decision-makers have some private agenda in mind?
Ahmadinejad and Chavez share some attributes that attract the attention of U.S. decision-makers: a penchant for rude public criticism, advocacy of a new global political regime not dominated by the U.S. (They also curiously both seem more than willing to sell oil to the U.S.) But are Iran and Venezuela major threats to the well-being of the American people? If not, Washington’s obsession with them in itself undermines U.S. national security in a host of different ways and thus constitutes dereliction of duty. American leaders are not put in office to puff up paper dragons so they can inflate defense budgets and enrich corporate CEOs, while antagonizing countries that otherwise might just go about their business. Since that charge is a serious one and since Washington cannot seem to get over the habit of squeezing Ahmadinejad and Chavez in the same ill-fitting boat, the question of “why this obsession” needs to be answered.
Aside from the trivial similarities noted above, Ahmadinejad and Chavez are about as different as they could be. The former is accused of pursuing nuclear arms, and his government has been predicted by Western hardliners of being 2-3 years away from achieving that goal for some 15 years; Chavez is still trying to get enough AK47s to defend his borders. Ahmadinejad likes a fundamentalist brand of Shi’i Islam that only a Protestant end-of-days believer could understand; Chavez is a secular socialist. Ahmadinejad presumably wants military parity with Israel, inclusion in regional affairs, and a nice little Shi’i empire that puts Sunni Salafis in their place, a goal that, by the way, Washington did much to further by its invasion of Iraq; Chavez presumably wants an independent Latin America in which the poor finally, for the first time in 500 years, have economic security and justice.
Considering the short list of similarities between these two U.S. betes noires and the very long list of differences, does not the Washington tendency to group them together seem odd? Indeed, Washington’s antipathy seems to constitute a prima facie case of decision-makers with a secret agenda that is not in the interests of U.S. national security. An explanation far more honest than any yet given is due the American people.