This past Sunday, much of the US public probably learned for the first time that their government had troops in Libya, as the military announced it was temporarily pulling them out. The US was withdrawing troops due to the advance of forces led by a rebel general aligned with the country’s rival government in the east, causing a spike in violence south of Tripoli.
For many, the news will also be a reminder that US intervention and regime change in foreign lands rarely have a pat, happy ending. For a time, Obama’s illegal Libyan adventure, launched and maintained through 2011 without congressional authorization and later reprised through some highly dubious legal reasoning, was considered a poster child for Obama’s concept of “smart power,” a case study of regime change done right. Since then, nearly every major piece of news out of the country — from the way it became a launching pad for extremist violence elsewhere in the region to the emergence of slave markets in the country to its status as a safe haven for ISIL — seemed to serve as yet another lesson why toppling a foreign government almost never does more good than harm.
The worst part is, many of those who cheered on or even orchestrated that disaster don’t appear to have learned that lesson — at least not if their stances on Venezuela are anything to go by.
For instance, take CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria, the centrist establishment’s favorite international affairs pundit. In 2011, Zakaria viewed a potential Obama intervention in Libya as a “powerful opportunity” to change the image of the US in the Middle East. “To have [Gaddafi] survive would be a humiliation for Washington,” he argued, and would embolden other regional dictators. “So the US must follow through in its efforts to get Gaddafi out of office,” he wrote. “If the Libyans request military assistance, Washington should move in that direction.”
Zakaria was proved completely wrong, of course. The Libyan misadventure did nothing to improve US standing in the Middle East — in fact, large majorities in the Arab World disagreed that the US was contributing to peace and stability in the region and by a wide margin saw the US as the party that had interfered the most to destabilize and cause conflict in the country. Zakaria’s other predictions didn’t pan out either. Far from being the “best way to prevent al-Qaeda from turning Libya into an area of strength,” as he predicted, removing Gaddafi made it a hub for violent extremists, and his ouster made dictators like Kim Jong Un more wary of getting rid of their own weapons, lest they share his fate.
Yet here is Zakaria less than two weeks ago, attempting to bait Trump into intervening more forcefully in Venezuela. “Trump has a remarkably consistent pattern of supporting Putin’s goals,” Zakaria said (in a statement that is as divorced from reality as it is routinely repeated on cable news). After invoking in full seriousness the Monroe Doctrine, Zakaria asked: “will Venezuela finally be the moment when Trump finally ends his appeasement?”
He’s not the only commentator who wants to see Maduro forced out. Take Lawrence Korb, one of Reagan’s former defense secretaries and a senior fellow at the allegedly liberal Center for American Progress. “We all think the dictator must go,” he said about the Democrats; “the question is what’s the best way to do it.” Korb isn’t arguing for military intervention — unlike Zakaria, who not-so-subtly hinted at it when he called Trump’s declaration denying that Maduro is Venezuela’s president “a far stronger declaration than the red line Barack Obama drew around Syria’s Assad.” But his view is clear: Maduro has to be removed, and it’s just a matter of coming up with the best way to do it.
Korb held a similar view about Gaddafi in Libya. “US strategic interests and prestige are likely to be enhanced, even if Libya becomes another Lebanon,” he predicted about US intervention back in March 2011. A week later, he told NPR that Obama could remove Gaddafi non-militarily, by using diplomacy and sanctions. Of course, the administration’s “limited” aims so seamlessly and quickly transformed into regime change, it was eventually forgotten there was ever any other justification for going in.
This applies to politicians, too. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who came out early and aggressively in favor of Trump’s bellicose Venezuela policy, was likewise one of the few high-ranking members of Congress to back Obama early on as he laid the plans for intervention in Libya. Similarly, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has led the charge on Venezuela, probably owing to the substantial Venezuelan expat population in the state. “There is no daylight between Democrats and Republicans on our approach to Venezuela and the illegitimate presidency of Maduro,” she said in February, not long after Marco Rubio assumed the role of Trump’s point man on ousting Maduro, which he said was only a question of “whether it will be peaceful or bloody.”
Wasserman-Schultz was also a supporter of Obama’s war in Libya eight years ago, at one point voting against a resolution prohibiting Obama from sending troops to the country. Gaddafi’s death, she said some months later, “marks the end of an era of terror and oppression in Libya,” rejoicing that the US “stood with people fighting to cast off tyranny.” She was joined in that instance, too, by Marco Rubio, who proclaimed that “justice has been done today” when he learned of Gaddafi’s rape and murder, just eight years before he would approvingly tweet an image of the lynching.
These are by no means the only examples, but you get the point. Libya, too, started out with confident predictions that if only the terrible autocrat in power could be gotten rid of, something infinitely better would be on the horizon. It, too, began as just a limited engagement, with officials swearing they would seek other, nonviolent ways to oust the leader. Less than half a year later, the US had spent $1 billion on covert operations in the country and Gaddafi was being sodomized with a knife.
As with any foreign intervention, it bears asking: why now, and why Venezuela? At any moment in the day, somewhere in the world, there is some strongman or tyrant butchering or repressing people, often in ways worse than we’ve been seeing in Venezuela — whether in Rwanda, the Philippines, or Yemen, where the House of Saud has waged a genocidal war happily supported by many of those now supposedly so appalled by conditions in Venezuela. And if lawmakers care so deeply about human suffering, the aid they’ve turned into a political football might be more welcome in southern Africa, which was just hit with what the UN believes may be the worst natural disaster ever to strike the southern hemisphere, submerging whole cities in water and creating a giant sea in the middle of Mozambique.
The solution to Venezuela’s crisis will have to be a political one, secured through international cooperation and negotiation (offers for which Maduro’s opponent has repeatedly refused). But trusting any government that has John Bolton, Elliot Abrams, Mike Pompeo, or Trump at the helm to transition Venezuela to democracy makes as much sense as putting a poacher in charge of a zoo. If liberals truly care about the suffering of the Venezuelan people, they should busy themselves pressuring Trump to drop his illegal, barbarous sanctions on the country, not cheer him on as he turns the screws.