Under President Donald Trump America has become the angry giant. Washington issues its orders to the rest of the world almost daily. But the U.S. directives are routinely ignored. Leading to more and tougher demands. And even greater resistance.
The problem is not just with America’s adversaries, such as North Korea and increasingly China. The administration also attempts to dictate to allies, most notably the Europeans. However, the response is increasingly defiance precisely when Washington most needs to work with friendly states to achieve its purported ends. For instance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has demanded that European governments follow the US out of the Iran nuclear accord, prompting them to effectively choose Iran over America.
The administration’s latest frustrated rants against a recalcitrant world involved Tehran’s tanker flotilla to Venezuela. Nicolas Maduro’s government has reinforced the socialist mismanagement of his nation’s oil resources begun by the late Hugo Chavez. Brutal American economic sanctions have completed the industry’s destruction. So a regime sitting atop abundant oil reserves cannot refine sufficient gasoline for its own population.
Iran has a different problem. Washington’s use of secondary and financial sanctions against the rest of the world has left the Islamic Republic with abundant oil and refined product to sell. So five tankers full of gasoline headed to Venezuela. Fueling the deal, so to speak, was thought to be a portion of Venezuela’s gold reserves. Valued at $45 million, the gasoline shipped will only last a few weeks, depending on how and to whom they are released. Apparently, Tehran also is providing equipment to help the Maduro government repair its refineries and other equipment.
The transfer enraged the administration, with its wishes simultaneously flouted in two capitals. The National Security Adviser tweeted that "The importation of Iranian gasoline is an act of desperation by the corrupt & illegitimate Maduro regime." David Schenker, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, proclaimed that the administration was "not pleased."
An anonymous American official told the Washington Post that the US "would not abide" Iranian support for Caracas: "The president has made clear the United States will not tolerate continued meddling by supporters of an illegitimate regime." Adm. Craig Faller, head of the US Southern Command, complained: "You have to ask yourself what interest Iran has in Venezuela. It is to gain a positional advantage in our neighborhood as a way to counter US interests."
Indeed, both former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Council John Bolton referenced the Monroe Doctrine, a dictate dating back two centuries which orders foreign powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere. Two years ago Tillerson opined that the principle was "as much alive today as the day when it was written." Last year Bolton proclaimed: "In this administration, we’re not afraid to use the phrase ‘Monroe Doctrine’." And Venezuela "is a country in our hemisphere."
Of course, with equal reason Tehran could query why America is "meddling" in the former’s neighborhood. What reason, other than to "counter" Iranian interests, is Washington attempting to force the Islamic Republic to end its assistance to the Syrian government which formally requested that aid? And why shouldn’t Tehran declare the Khomeini Doctrine to keep America and other foreign nations out of the Middle East?
Iran and Venezuela served their joint revenge dish cold. As Maduro put it, with evident satisfaction: "We are two rebel revolutionary peoples that are never going to kneel before North American imperialism."
There was speculation that the US might seek to seize the Iranian tankers, using ships already deployed to interdict drug smuggling from Venezuelan territory. However, Washington’s sanctions have no international warrant. It appears that even the Trump administration isn’t willing to openly commit piracy on the high seas.
Moreover, both Venezuela and Iran threatened to retaliate if the US did so. Caracas has little capability to stop America from acting; the attempt likely would leave its ships disabled or sunk by the US navy. However, Iran has demonstrated its ability to disrupt oil traffic in the Persian Gulf. President Hassan Rouhani declared: "If Americans create problems for our oil tankers in the Caribbean waters or anywhere in the world, we will reciprocally create problems for them." With tensions between Tehran and Washington waning as the administration shifts its attention to China, even administration Iranophobes appear to have little stomach for another Mideast crisis.
Another unnamed US official claimed that Washington didn’t want to trigger a crisis over a few tankers but hoped to prevent regular trade. The administration did threaten to sanction two Greek-owned tankers thought to be carrying additional Iranian shipments to Venezuela, which halted in response. And the US has been lobbying countries, most notably Trinidad and Tobago, to do what it won’t do, seize Iranian ships. Russ Dallen of Caracas Capital Markets contended: "It was obvious that the Trump administration wasn’t going to let this situation continue. There is no way that the US is going to allow a few gallons of gas to become a pipeline."
However, Trinidad and Tobago merely requested that Iran avoid the former’s sea lanes. And no one else agreed to do the Trump administration’s dirty work by committing an act of war.
Administration officials also suggested that they would increase US sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, but that policy so far has proved to be a dead end. President Trump has imposed or increased economic penalties on Cuba, North Korea, Russia, and Germany, as well as Iran and Venezuela. None of these governments has submitted to Washington. Indeed, after the president suggested that he could easily bring Tehran to heel it contemptuously rejected Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s surrender terms. The president was left to nearly beg the Islamic Republic to negotiate, without success.
Anyway, the US has no obvious means to stop an oil-for-gold transaction, since America’s most effective sanctions utilize its domination of the international financial system. And what transactions are left to penalize? Ben Cahill of the Center for Strategic and International Studies observed: "It’s almost become like a whack-a-mole situation where every time an illicit transaction comes up involving Venezuela, the US government tries to put sanctions on it. But there are diminishing returns. We’re running out of entities to sanction."
Of course, the world will benefit when the oppressive regimes in both Caracas and Tehran pass away. Most important, they abuse their own people. However, Washington has done much to stoke hostility in both capitals, having promoted coups, threatened military action, and promoted regime change. US policy effectively encouraged the two pariah regimes to cooperate.
This is not the first or most serious example of the "enemy of my enemy" phenomenon at work-which also includes Cuba, the recipient of some presumed free or deeply discounted oil from Venezuela. Washington’s confrontational policy toward both Russia and China has driven them together, making a far more serious combination. Yet Moscow traditionally has viewed itself as part of the West and increasingly is the junior partner in its cooperation with Beijing.
An even more important consequence of American hubris is Europe’s developing workaround to US sanctions on Iran. On financial issues, at least, the Trump administration is encouraging virtually the entire world to organize against America. US policymakers appear oblivious to the building resentment over their demand that the rest of the world kowtow or else face financial ruin. If the dollar loses its primacy, it is more likely to be due to political misjudgment than fiscal mismanagement, even though the latter is equally serious.
Washington’s sanctions policies against Iran and Venezuela have achieved little other than to impoverish the peoples of both nations. The governing elites appear to be getting along just fine. Similar has been the impact in Cuba, under an American economic embargo for six decades. And North Korea and Russia, as well. Now even beleaguered Iran is challenging the US in America’s own neighborhood, despite the sacred Monroe Doctrine. Observed economist Orlando Ochoa: "Iran is taking the bold move to show the world that they also have influence in an area the US considers its backyard."
It is time for Washington to de-escalate these disputes and look for political accommodations. Economic sanctions can be a useful tool but are best employed as part of a larger diplomatic campaign with international backing. As both Iran and Venezuela have dramatically demonstrated, unilateral sanctions rarely enable America to dictate to even the poorest state. Yet again the Trump administration has highlighted its arrogant impotence, embarrassing itself and America.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.