In The Mouse That Roared, a 1955 satirical novel by Leonard Wibberly, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick – a mythical three-by-five mile nation between Switzerland and France – declares war against the United States. This is done not because Princess Gloriana, the absolute ruler, and Tully Bascomb, commander of its "army" outfitted with the latest in crossbows – expects to defeat the mighty superpower, but precisely because they expect to lose. While this may seem odd, the logic behind Grand Fenwick’s war aims is impeccable, given the history of World War II and its aftermath, in which the US rebuilt the defeated Axis powers and poured in foreign aid via the Marshall Plan. The Duchy is broke, largely because its single export, Grand Fenwick wine, has been duplicated by an American winery that markets its product under the name "Grand Enwick." The US State Department ignores the Duchy’s protests, and so the "invasion" is launched with the hope that Grand Fenwick’s defeat will be both imminent and profitable.
The plan doesn’t work out quite as intended, however: through a series of circumstances Wibberly makes all too believable, the Grand Fenwickian army wins the war, and a number of unintended – and hilarious – consequences follow.
The Mouse That Roared is full of foreign policy lessons for today – the plight of small nations, how domestic politics determines foreign policy, and, most of all, how a combination of US policymakers’ arrogance and incompetence has made the US both an international laughingstock and a loose cannon in a volatile world. I couldn’t help but think of Wibberly’s little masterpiece upon reading the news that the Obama administration has imposed new sanctions on Venezuela, declaring it to be "an extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States." Piling absurdity atop hyperbole, the executive order issued by President Obama solemnly declares this "threat" to be a "national emergency."
Man the barricades! Guard the border! Venezuela’s Red Army is at the gates!
The Venezuelan military consists of a little over 100,000 "frontline" (i.e. active) soldiers, with an air force of 227 aircraft – Grand Fenwickian numbers compared to the mightiest military machine on earth. In addition, the distance between Venezuela and the United States is over 1000 miles, with all of Central America and Mexico standing between us and the fearsome Venezuelan military machine. So it’s not like we have to stop them in Caracas before they reach Harlingen, Texas.
What are those geniuses in Washington thinking?
The contention in the executive order that Venezuela is a "threat to US national security" is a legal fiction that, as administration officials explained, "was largely a formality required by law in order to carry out sanctions, as was a further declaration in the executive order that the threat constituted a national emergency for the United States." Which just goes to show how the "law" is bent to accommodate the wishes of our wise rulers, for whom words have no real meaning except as determined by their convenience.
The US claims this move is necessary in order to slap the Venezuelan government on the wrist for harassing opposition activists: the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, was recently arrested for supposedly plotting a coup, and others have been interned and otherwise harassed as the shaky Chavista regime fights to hold on to power in the face of a major economic downturn. Long lines for basic food items and other staples have recently given the opposition a boost, and the government of Hugo Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, has never been more unpopular – that is, until Washington’s recent declaration.
Maduro has used the Obama administration’s action to buttress his case that Washington is not only responsible for the economic downturn – a ridiculous assertion – but is also planning to oust his government. This latter charge is not all that crazy given the history of US-supported coups, one of which ousted Chavez temporarily until a popular rebellion against the coup plotters reinstated him. This allows the Maduro gang to alibi their disastrous economic policies – price controls, nationalizations, and a general crackdown on the "bourgeoisie" – and point to "sabotage" by the US as the real reason for the growing misery of life in Venezuela, where toilet paper is a rarity and cooking oil is not to be had for love or money.
It also allows Maduro to continue on his course of Cubanization, demanding "emergency" powers to counter the threat of Yankee imperialism: using patriotism as a club to beat down his domestic enemies, he is pulling a Venezuelan version of "you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists" meme right out of George W. Bush’s post-9/11 rhetorical arsenal. In true Grand Fenwickian fashion, Maduro is effectively declaring a state of war exists between Venezuela and the US, a condition from which he fully expects to reap lots of political benefits. "No one messes with our country," he bawled, "the Yankee boot will never touch it!"
The democratic opposition, for its part, is appalled by the Obama administration’s stupid declaration, with Democratic Unity, the mainstream opposition group, saying "Venezuela is not a threat to any country" and denouncing "unilateral sanctions." All across the country, the previously surging opposition is in retreat before the patriotic-nationalist wave stirred up by Washington.
This reaction was all too predictable, and it belies the alleged concern for democracy and the fate of the opposition that supposedly motivated the new sanctions. Indeed, what this shows is that Washington couldn’t care less about Venezuela’s imprisoned democratic activists, and that it knowingly endangers them in order to advance its own agenda.
So what does Washington’s agenda consist of?
While the rest of the commentariat is too busy writing about Iran sanctions to notice what’s going on down south, I’ve seen two analyses worth addressing. Correctly railing against the monumental hypocrisy of an administration that pretends to care about democracy while allying itself with the most repressive regimes on earth, Glenn Greenwald writes:
"In essence, Venezuela is one of the very few countries with significant oil reserves which does not submit to U.S. dictates, and this simply cannot be permitted (such countries are always at the top of the US government and media list of Countries To Be Demonized). Beyond that, the popularity of Chavez and the relative improvement of Venezuela’s poor under his redistributionist policies petrifies neoliberal institutions for its ability to serve as an example; just as the Cuban economy was choked by decades of US sanctions and then held up by the US as a failure of Communism, subverting the Venezuelan economy is crucial to destroying this success."
While the oil connection may have some relevance, it doesn’t explain why the US went after non-oil producing countries in the region, i.e., Brazil (1964), Chile under Allende, Uruguay (both in 1973), or, a bit farther north, Guatemala (1982 and ’83), and Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, not to mention Panama under Manuel Noriega. In my view, the oil connection – always a popular theme with the left – is a minor factor compared to the geographical/historical factor.
South and Central America have always been considered by Washington to be in its "back yard": this was the meaning of and reason for the Monroe Doctrine. Like Russia’s "near abroad," albeit a bit more extensive, America’s "near abroad" encompasses two entire continents and has always been jealously guarded by Washington. The same cannot be said about the oil-producing countries of, say, Africa, or Central Asia. Besides, the US is one of the major consumers of Venezuela’s oil, with prices set by the world market, and that will continue to be true no matter what government holds power in Caracas.
On the other hand, William Padgett over at Miami’s WLRN has a much more realistic theory:
"[W]hile I question Obama’s overkill on Venezuela, I understand why he resorted to it. And the explanation shows us that while Obama may consider Maduro his worst hemispheric irritant, he’s apparently learned a lot from the Venezuelan leader about how to play the distraction game.
"Obama, it turns out, needs his own diversion right now. Or he will very soon if – and it looks increasingly likely – his administration decides in the coming weeks to remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of international terrorism sponsors.
"That move is all but necessary for normalizing relations with the communist island. But it won’t sit well with US conservatives, especially the Cuban-American congressional caucus, who will call the terrorism-list concession more proof that Obama is a foreign policy weakling who likes getting sand kicked in his face by the Castro regime.
"Which is why Obama needs to flex his own beach brawn – and he’s betting that playing hardball with Venezuela will blunt the Beltway condemnation on Cuba.
"’It certainly helps placate the people who will say he’s soft on the Latin American left,’ says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C."
This nails it for the simple reason that there’s no such thing as "foreign policy" – it’s all about domestic politics.
Governments are concerned with one thing and one thing only: maintaining and expanding their own power. And especially in a democracy, this means fending off political opponents and tailoring "foreign" policy to suit the exigencies of politics on the home front. To take one glaring example of this currently making headlines: why did 47 Republican Senators sign a letter to the leaders of Iran designed to sabotage the Obama administration’s negotiations with Tehran? The answer is because the GOP has a sizable Christian fundamentalist faction fanatically devoted to Israel, which opposes any agreement and is determined to "blow up" the talks, as letter author Sen. Tom Cotton described his intent. At least three of the signers of that letter are currently running for President and the rest hope to be reelected with support from the powerful pro-Israel lobby, mega-donors like Sheldon Adelson, and their evangelical foot soldiers.
The Obama administration, for its part, far from being sudden converts to non-interventionism, also has purely political reasons for opening negotiations with Iran at this time: their own base, and the country at large, opposes another Middle Eastern war. Such a conflict, if it occurs while Obama is still in office, would have horrific economic consequences, which could bring down the already shaky US economy. And then there’s the question of Obama’s legacy, which – for understandable reasons – he doesn’t want to be World War III.
America, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, and the Duchy of Grand Fenwick – all conduct their foreign policies in accordance with the same operating principle. That principle can be reduced to a single insight: that the world’s rulers, wherever they might be, are all essentially the same in that they invariably seek to preserve their own hold on power. All their actions – whether acted out on the international stage or domestically – are determined not by a sense of justice, or any ideology, but by this overriding drive to consolidate and extend their authority.
This is why a country that poses as much of a danger to the United States as the Duchy of Grand Fenwick has suddenly been declared a "threat" to our national security. This is why a "national emergency" has been declared by the Obama administration, and Venezuela’s democratic opposition has been thrown under the bus by Washington – not because there’s any real threat, except to the political position of the gang currently in power, but because it’s all about politics.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.