The long-running debate over how to deal with the irrational and impulsive strongman, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, has reached feverish pitch this winter. The latest casualty in this war of words has become U.S. Ambassador Larry Palmer, the Obama administration's nomination as ambassador to Venezuela. Worse yet, Chávez ultimately got what he wanted out of this latest battle: his choice of who will not be our next Ambassador in Venezuela. On Monday, Venezuela formally told the U.S. to not bother sending Larry Palmer as the next ambassador since he would be asked to return the moment he landed in Caracas.
How did this all go down?
Like Cuba, any U.S. move regarding Venezuela involves egos, politics and fortunately, some policy. Naturally, when Palmer went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over the summer, the career diplomat—characterized by some at the U.S. Department of State as "not a Washington man"—he already faced an uphill slog.
Our domestic debate over Venezuela generally falls into two camps: engagement and confrontation. There are, of course, shades of gray and nuances between the two sides—though such voices are so often overpowered by the more extreme views.
On one side, you have those espousing "strategic engagement," keeping in line with the Obama administration's stated foreign policy and national security objectives. In short and broadly speaking, these proponents might argue, with an irrational state, you shouldn't turn your back. Look where that got us with North Korea, Iran and Syria. Instead you want a seat at the table to start a dialogue based on mutual respect and to build on areas of mutual interest. You raise concerns discretely and express disapproval quietly or through third parties. As one person said, engagement should be “subversive," because you seek to assert positive influence by being present and through cooperation on areas such as business development, financial opportunities, or culture and sports. Indeed, Palmer was the right guy to carry out this mission.
But, the engagement policy, as it is practiced with Venezuela, seems more like "appeasement," say people clamoring for a tougher approach. After all, for years now, we have witnessed a democracy's death by a thousand cuts. This past week, Hugo Chávez got one of his Christmas wishes with the approval of new decree powers, thereby further eroding the country's once well-established institutional checks and balances. Chávez threatens more than human rights and democratic norms; the U.S. has legitimate national security concerns, such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism and narcotrafficking. Yet, as Chávez runs roughshod over international norms, is the U.S. working to halt the downward spiral?
Those are the broad brush strokes of the debate into which Palmer was tossed.
I'm told that some sought to torpedo Palmer's nomination from the get-go, either preferring another candidate with more credentials on human rights, or not wanting an ambassador in Venezuela at all. Critics doubted that Palmer—despite his experience as President of the Inter-American Foundation and as the Chargé d’Affaires in Ecuador during a time of major internal crises—had the steel to tangle with Venezuela's strongman. To many, his soft tone and circumspect statements at his confirmation hearing reinforced this view.
Because Palmer did not come out swinging a big stick at his Senate confirmation hearing, Senator Richard Lugar sent the ambassador a set of "questions for the record" (QFRs), in attempt to strengthen support for his nomination. Palmer sat down with folks at the State Department and answered them, discussing the low morale in Venezuela's military, the ties between members of Venezuela's government and Colombian guerrillas and allowing them refuge in Venezuelan territory, its role in narcotrafficking, Chávez' increasing control over the judicial and legislative branches, steady erosion of checks and balances, and violations of human rights and freedom of the press.
Palmer's responses—which he thought would be closely held, according to several sources at the State Department, including the ambassador-designate himself—were newsworthy, especially at a time of heightened tensions between Colombia and Venezuela. The QFR ripped around town and the world, media reports picked up Palmer's statements, thereby setting off the wildfire. So much for the State Department trying to keep a "low profile" on Venezuela and the sensitive situation in the Andean region.
Chávez called foul and interference, telling President Obama to find another candidate because Larry Palmer would not be welcome.
In August, Chávez had said on his TV show, "How can you think I'd accept this gentleman coming here?...You'd best withdraw him, Obama. Don't insist, I'm asking you."
"[Palmer] disqualified himself by breaking all the rules of diplomacy. He messed with all of us. He can't come here as ambassador," Chávez said.
Indeed, after the QFR got around, it seemed almost impossible that Chávez could save face and also accept Palmer.
The Obama administration did not back down, continuing to press forward with Palmer's confirmation and trying to quietly persuade the Venezuelans to accept Palmer.
Back home, the finger-pointing started about how the QFR got around so quickly, as I am told by several sources in and out of government. But, as questions for the record; they are not classified by definition. They are public information. That said, QFRs are historically not posted on Web sites, and emailed to interested and critical observers during a confirmation process. Usually, they come out when the committee publishes the transcript of a hearing, or often upon request during a hearing. Of course, as public information, it is perfectly legal to disseminate QFRs at any time as one sees fit—although traditionally they are treated with more discretion, according to several expert observers.
Yet, in this age of the online social media, a 24-hour news cycle, hungry blogosphere and Wikipedia, it is a risk to assume that any electronic communication will be kept private. And all communications can be rendered electronic.
Furthermore, the QFR took a step toward stating official U.S. positions on Venezuela—something which many have been asking for and seeking from the State Department for years. Despite this legitimate demand, the State Department seems to prefer to keep Venezuela on the backburner. At least until the pot boils over. Given the costly complexities of Iraq and Afghanistan, must Venezuela be another mess in which we meddle?
To note, Palmer—true to his venerable professionalism as an American Foreign Service officer - takes all responsibility for the controversy that arose from the publication of the QFR. But I must ask: should it really be a job requirement that an ambassador knows how "questions for the record" are handled? Of course not.
So, what was the understanding between the legislative and executive branches?
It's not clear whether some sought to use the QFR to strong arm the State Department to articulate or take tougher positions, and thereby bolster Palmer's confirmation prospects and support on the heels of his "weak" hearing performance. Alternatively, perhaps the QFR was publicized to thwart his prospects entirely. Who knows; at this stage, it's irrelevant.
What's very relevant are the unfolding consequences of the QFR mishandling. First and foremost, Palmer got rolled. A dedicated Foreign Service officer was not treated with due professionalism and respect. We will not know how great he would have been in Venezuela. Second, the State Department on this matter appears naive, indecisive and disorganized. Third, critics who never wanted ANY ambassador—and certainly NOT Palmer—in Caracas, succeeded. As did Chávez, for the short term.
To take up the second point, the State Department appears to have different and confused messages on Venezuela. The ostensible example of this is the two messages of Larry Palmer's Senate testimony versus his answers to the QFR. What can be said publicly and on the record regarding Venezuela? Beyond talking with a low voice on the safest matters, it is not clear. Is such timidity to Chávez' bluster necessary?
The next step will be to see whether the State Department will go bold and call Venezuelan Ambassador to the U.S. Bernardo Alvarez a persona non grata, or take a softer approach and cancel his visa.
Alvarez had been back home, and over the weekend, it was said he was not planning to return to Washington DC—already one move ahead of the anticipated reciprocation to Palmer's rejection.
It was in Chávez’s best interests to welcome Palmer, as he wanted to work with Venezuelans, and help ease the growing tensions between the two countries. But now, the State Department will have to rethink this, and find another person...most likely with a stronger track record on human rights and democracy. Perhaps we should accept that playing nice and fair with an irrational actor like Chávez is not likely to yield positive results.
At the end of the day, we've been backed into a corner to put forward a tougher ambassador, and not Palmer, who was our first pick. Does this mean likewise that our policy of engagement must be altered? Are we acting in response to Venezuela's moves? In this context, Chávez, and some conservative critics here, are setting the terms of U.S. policy.
This debacle also illustrates the express need for the State Department to complete its review of Venezuela policy and clarify its positions. The QFR mishandling is a symptom of the bigger issue: uniting our various agencies to craft a coherent message and policy on Venezuela.
What are the "red lines" of what we'll tolerate from Venezuela? When one of our career diplomats goes on record saying that Venezuela's National Guard is involved in narcotrafficking, provides safe haven to terrorists like the FARC, imprisons judges for ruling against Chávez, why is the State Department not publicizing those concerns?
Until now, the State Department had been keeping its profile too low for anyone's good. Ostensibly that of Ambassador Palmer.
At this point, why is it a mistake to outline on record ways in which the Venezuelan government is breaking very basic standards of human rights and hemispheric security? Just some open and disquieting questions.
At the least, the State Department needs to figure out what its basic message is, and then put it out there with a unified voice, loud and clear. This could go far to improve its public outreach and image.
But while silence continues, it seems that the Venezuelans have settled the U.S. debate: this kind of "engagement" will not get us where we want to be.
Chávez is antithetical to our democratic values and security concerns. He is moving full steam down the field, while we sit on the sidelines.
Time to play.
*Liz Harper is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in Washington DC.