How Not to Treat the Neighborhood Bully

How Not to Treat the Neighborhood Bully

Trying to track the course of U.S. policy toward Venezuela is enough to give one whiplash. Where a few weeks ago Barack Obama’s administration appeared to take a principled stand behind opposition protests asserting that this April’s presidential election to elect Hugo Chávez’s successor was stolen, today it seems to have tossed the opposition overboard as it seeks to normalize relations with the disputed government of Nicolás Maduro.

Even as opposition leader Henrique Capriles has been traveling to regional capitals seeking support for his campaign for a clean election, someone at the State Department evidently thought it was perfect timing for a smiling, handshaking photo op between Secretary of State John Kerry and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua at last week’s Organization of American States meeting in Guatemala.

Certainly it would be understandable if a U.S.-Venezuelan rapprochement was the product of some identifiable change in that government’s behavior — some nod to the legitimacy of the opposition’s complaints, maybe a commitment to stop berating the United States and friendly countries, or perhaps even a public pledge to finally cooperate on counternarcotics policy. Yet none of this has occurred.

Instead, this is what we have seen from the Maduro government in the last few months:

Not exactly what you would call a charm offensive.

Indeed, the only thing we have seen from the Maduro government since its tainted victory is an accelerated offensive to replace the Castro regime as the bully in the Latin American neighborhood, using threats both explicit and implicit to intimidate anyone daring to criticize its anti-democratic actions.

Rewarding bad behavior is no way to treat a bully. Moreover, one does not have to be Bismarck to recognize that indulgence of belligerent actions among states only encourages more aberrant behavior.

Most frustrating is that, unlike Chávez, Maduro’s vitriol and bombast are a reflection of his weakness, not his strength. Clearly, he is in over his head, commands no respect at home, has disputed legitimacy, and is manifestly incapable of managing the socioeconomic disaster bequeathed by Chávez. In such a scenario, he desperately needs U.S. recognition of his regime, and it is now being handed to him on a silver platter, with no apparent concessions being demanded of him.

That isn’t statesmanship; it’s an abdication of it. Maduro and his Cuban minders are avowed enemies of the United States. Throwing them a "lifeline" — as the Washington Post put it in a blistering editorial — with some wooly hope that they will see the error of their ways will only succeed in inviting an even worse situation for U.S. interests than the one we are confronting now.