Playing the Washington Blame Game
By John Sweeney
07.09.05 | The Bush administration’s strategy to contain Chavez is off to a rocky start, according to a Miami Herald article entitled “U.S. tries everything, but can't slow Chávez”. Two sources cited by name for the article were former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Bernard Aronson, and Miguel Diaz, who was identified in the article as a former CIA analyst on Latin America who tracked the internal debate on Venezuela last year for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In the article, Aronson is quoted as saying that ''The alternative should not be how you stop Chávez but how you have an alternative message for the region that is more compelling.” Diaz remarks that ''scrimmages within the administration on Venezuela were often very, very rough,'' although he doesn’t identify the parties that engaged in those apparently heated internal debates over what to do about Chavez.
Washington, D.C. is a town where the favorite game is what Venezuelans sometimes refer to as “tirando la piedra y escondiendo la mano.” Making policy in Washington quite frequently is not about coming up with original and innovative ideas for solving major problems that affect the United States and other countries. Instead, it’s about assigning individual blame for obvious policy failures. In this case, Aronson is basically critical about the Bush administration’s failure to come up with an effective foreign policy for Venezuela (and Latin America), while Diaz alludes to alleged internal infighting between presumably senior members of the Bush administration.
The question of whether or not the Bush administration has a coherent foreign policy for Latin America isn’t addressed in this brief analysis because for now our interest is providing some insight into the backgrounds of Mr. Aronson and Mr. Diaz, and their respective roles in Washington’s failed foreign policy towards Venezuela. This failure didn’t start with the so-called containment strategy launched several months ago. It started back in 1998 when Mr. Aronson was still very closely tied to the administration of President Bill Clinton, and Diaz was a policy analyst at CSIS responsible for following Venezuela among other issues in the Americas.
U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela John Maisto was the official mouthpiece for the initial foreign policy on Venezuela, which he articulated more or less in these words: “Watch what Chavez does, not what he says.” Maisto was always soft on Chavez, like he was soft on Daniel Ortega during his stint as Ambassador to Nicaragua in the 1990s, before he was sent to Venezuela. This official U.S. policy was endorsed at the time by Aronson and many other figures on the Democratic Party side of the U.S. foreign policy community that specializes on Latin America, like Arturo Valenzuela of Georgetown University and Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue.
The Republican Party side of the Latin America policymaking community in Washington, D.C. was mostly silent on Chavez back in 1998, with five explicit exceptions: the late Dr. Constantine Menges, Dr. Norman Bailey, Ambassador Otto Juan Reich, Dr. Mark Falcoff at the American Enterprise Institute, and me. At the time I worked at the Heritage Foundation as a Latin America policy analyst, where Cuba, Mexico and trade expansion in Latin America were the top institutional priorities at the time. However, in at least three dozen monthly luncheons from late 1998 through the end of 2001 that regularly attracted between 30 and 40 members of the Washington policymaking community who were identified with the Republican side, the five of us – Constantine, Norman, Otto, Mark and myself – were usually in the minority when it came to assessing Chavez. The majority, including then-CSIS policy analyst Diaz, took a more moderate view about Chavez, and were very critical of the failings of the corrupt ancient regime that was responsible for creating Chavez. Diaz didn’t really start hardening his views about the alleged potential beneficence of the Bolivarian revolution until sometime in 2003.
The “scrimmages” inside the Bush administration that Diaz refers to can be traced back to Aronson, and the influential role he played at the start of the Bush administration in January 2001. How did a Democratic operative influence the Republican Bush administration? Aronson is a close friend of Robert T. Zoellick, and Zoellick’s role during Bush’s presidential election campaign in 2000 was to coordinate and channel the production of dozens of policy papers on many issues including foreign policy and Latin America. At the time, many of the republican experts on Latin America that met once a month over lunch to discuss policy were deeply involved in producing papers that were transmitted to Zoellick. A lot of these people had been in the Reagan administration during the 1980s but were out in the cold during the 1990s while Clinton was president, and they wanted jobs in the Bush administration. Some excellent policy papers were produced by this group, but there is no evidence that any of them ever reached Bush or his innermost circle after Zoellick received them.
Bush’s election in November 2000 was eclipsed by the Florida vote recount that lasted nearly until his inauguration in January 2001. No one really paid attention to Latin America. Condolleezza Rice was named National Security Adviser and she asked Zoellick to recommend someone to fill the top Latin America post at NSC. Zoellick asked Aronson, who recommended Maisto. That’s how Maisto, a career diplomat strongly associated with the Democratic Party and Liberation Theology ideas, became the first senior appointee on Latin America in the Bush administration. The source of this anecdote was Maisto himself.
A lot of initial Bush appointees to jobs in the Latin America area were individuals who had been involved during the Reagan administration in the wars that shook Central America during the 1980s. Generally speaking, their principal areas of interest (and their backgrounds) were Central America and Cuba. Venezuela wasn't on their radar in early 2001. Otto Reich would have been an effective Assistant Secretary of State, but he never got off the ground politically because of old Cold War enmities in Washington. In Reich's case, the principal political executioner was Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT).
Dodd is also a key figure in the story of how the U.S. government screwed up so badly on Chavez, because it was Dodd who buried any chance of launching a serious international investigation of the events that occurred in Caracas in April 2002 when he decided to blame Reich for allegedly having knowledge of an alleged coup plot against Chavez. By the time Dodd realized he was running down a blind alley simply to massage his own political ego and his personal hatred for Reich, it was too late to convene congressional hearings because the results of those hearings would have embarrassed Dodd before the entire world.
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