Shadow Government

Trump Should Put the Safety of American Diplomats First

By failing to prioritize the security of U.S. officials in Venezuela, the White House bungled what could have been a rare foreign-policy success.

Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro rally in Caracas on Jan. 23. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro rally in Caracas on Jan. 23. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s recognition of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president last week was in some ways uncharacteristic of the Trump administration. He made the move in coordination with allies, unveiled it to Congress and the public in a synchronized fashion, and invoked long-held U.S. principles and values—democracy and the protection of human rights, principally—that have been for the most part absent from his foreign policy. As national security aides to former President Barack Obama, the announcement struck us, both in substance and process, as one our former colleagues might have made.

That is, it did until a disturbing oversight emerged. We learned the administration failed to perform one key function: ensure the safety of U.S. diplomats and other officials stationed in Venezuela. Rather than set in motion a rare potential foreign-policy victory, the administration set the stage for a dangerous and unnecessary standoff between Venezuelan forces and U.S. personnel in Caracas.

The timing of the State Department’s decisions on U.S. diplomatic presence tell us, as former national security professionals who were involved in such decision-making, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was likely reactive rather than proactive about his team’s safety. Shortly after Trump recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, who claimed victory last May in elections widely judged to be fraudulent, said U.S. diplomats had 72 hours to leave the country. The response from the administration was unequivocal. Pompeo rejected the ultimatum, claiming Maduro no longer had the authority to order such a move—a strong signal that the full contingent of U.S. diplomats would remain.

Nevertheless, that posture changed the following day when the State Department announced a drawdown of nonessential embassy employees. According to a leaked U.S. memo, the embassy had requested assistance from Venezuelan security forces—who have maintained their loyalty to Maduro—to facilitate transportation from the embassy to the airport for U.S. officials and their families. The unknown number U.S. diplomats who remain in Caracas are now subject to the will of a political tyrant whose legitimacy the United States doesn’t acknowledge and whose regime Trump administration officials have threatened with “all options.”

This standoff suggests the Trump administration failed to plan adequately for one of its most important responsibilities: the safety and security of Americans serving overseas. The Trump administration failed to plan adequately for one of its most important responsibilities: the safety and security of Americans serving overseas.During our collective seven years on the White House’s National Security Council staff, we attended countless meetings on this very subject, sometimes in response to a crisis or sometimes in anticipation of one. The Obama administration, for example, devised meticulous drawdown plans for U.S. facilities in high-threat posts. In some cases, including when rebel forces instigated an uprising in Yemen in 2015, those plans were set in motion, and diplomatic outposts were entirely shuttered. In other instances, we went to great lengths to prepare to exfiltrate Americans in the face of violent unrest that never emerged, such as when we thought the release in 2014 of Congress’s study of the CIA’s former detention and interrogation programs could spark mass protests.

To our minds, in the case of Venezuela, there are two possible explanations for what happened, neither of them reassuring about the state of the U.S. national security policy processes. In one, the Trump administration failed to include the intelligence community and the State Department’s diplomatic security office in its policy considerations. While their assessments aren’t infallible, we have every reason to believe—informed by our experiences in similar situations—that both would have warned that an overtly antagonistic approach to the Maduro government would pose an increased threat to U.S. officials in Venezuela, and the State Department would have pressed for a drawdown. That’s in part because it doesn’t take an expert on Maduro to know that he wouldn’t take this move on Washington’s part lightly. Even likelier, it’s possible that the administration did hear out these voices but opted not to reduce the size of the U.S. footprint in Caracas prior to recognizing the opposition leader. If the first explanation is true, the White House was dangerously negligent. If the latter is true, it was perilously derelict.

All available evidence suggests the Trump administration failed to heed warnings from career professionals. The first statement Pompeo issued last week on the continuing U.S. diplomatic presence had a defiant tone to it, making clear that U.S. diplomats would remain on the ground to advance the country’s newfound commitment to Guaidó. The administration may have calculated—not completely without reason—that drawing down the U.S. diplomatic presence before recognizing Guaidó would undermine his legitimacy. The administration also may have considered—again, not without reason—that a preemptive drawdown might have tipped off the Maduro regime to the impending announcement, the strength of which derived in part from its surprise and from close coordination with U.S. allies.

Neither of these rationales, however, justifies the administration’s approach, which exposed more Americans than was necessary to profound risk. More than 120 American officials and their family members were based in Caracas at the time of the announcement. A responsible policy would have directed, at the very least, the departure of dependents. It’s especially jarring that the face of this defiant posture has been Pompeo, who, as a firebrand Republican congressman from Kansas, fashioned himself as the fiercest protector of the country’s deployed personnel following the deadly assault on U.S. officials in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

Even for the Trump administration’s harshest critics, us included, there’s something to admire about its approach to Venezuela, which has injected quintessential U.S. values back into U.S. foreign policy, at least in this narrow context. But the administration cannot purport to be carrying out a policy of “America First” when the safety and security of Americans serving the country in harm’s way don’t come first.

Ned Price served in the Obama administration as a special assistant to the president and as a National Security Council spokesperson. He directs policy and communications at National Security Action. @nedprice

Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst who served on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama and at the U.S. Treasury under President George W. Bush. @sam_vinograd

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