Photo: An anti-government protester dressed as Lady Liberty, wearing the colors of Venezuela’s flag, hugs a fellow protester during a demonstration near La Carlota airbase in Caracas, Venezuela. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó is calling for Venezuelans to fill streets around the country Wednesday to demand President Nicolás Maduro’s ouster. Maduro is also calling for his supporters to rally. Ariana Cubillos/AP/REX/Shutterstock
This article originally appeared at The Rolling Stone.com.
American interventionists learned a lesson from Iraq: pre-empt the debate. Now everyone is for regime change
By Matt Taibbi
The United States has just suspended flights to Venezuela. Per the New York Times:
CARACAS — The United States banned all air transport with Venezuela on Wednesday over security concerns, further isolating the troubled South American nation…
A disinterested historian — Herodotus raised from the dead — would see this as just the latest volley in a siege tale. America has been trying for ages to topple the regime of President Nicholas Maduro, after trying for years to do the same to his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
The new play in the Trump era involves recognizing Juan Guaidó as president and starving and sanctioning the country. Maduro, encircled, has been resisting.
The American commercial news landscape, in schism on domestic issues, is in lockstep here. Every article is seen from one angle: Venezuelans under the heel of a dictator who caused the crisis, with the only hope a “humanitarian” intervention by the United States.
There is no other perspective. Media watchdog FAIR just released results of a study of three months of American opinion pieces. Out of 76 editorials in the New York Times, Washington Post, the “big three Sunday morning talk shows” or PBS News Hour, zero came out against the removal of Maduro. They wrote:
“Corporate news coverage of Venezuela can only be described as a full-scale marketing campaign for regime change.”
Allowable opinion on Venezuela ranges from support for military invasion to the extreme pacifist end of the spectrum, as expressed in a February op-ed by Dr. Francisco Rodriguez and Jeffrey Sachs called “An Urgent Call for Compromise in Venezuela”:
“We strongly urge… a peaceful and negotiated transition of power rather than a winner-take-all game of chicken…”
So we should either remove Maduro by force, or he should leave peaceably, via negotiation. These are the options.
After the disaster of Vietnam eons ago, American thought leaders became convinced we “lost” in Indochina because of — get this — bad PR.
The real lesson in Vietnam should have been that people would pay any price to overthrow a hated occupying force. American think-tankers and analysts however somehow became convinced (and amazingly still are) that the problem was Walter Cronkite and the networks giving up on the war effort.
Quietly then, over the course of decades, lobbyists pushed for changes. In the next big war, there would be no gruesome pictures of soldiers dying, no photos of coffins coming home, no pictures of civilian massacres (enforced more easily with new embedding rules), and no Cronkite-ian defeatism.
They got all of that by the time we went into Iraq. The TV landscape by then was almost completely sterilized. Jesse Ventura and Phil Donahue were pulled from MSNBC because they opposed invasion. Networks agreed not to film coffins or death scenes.
Yet the invasion of Iraq was a failure for the same reason Vietnam was a failure, and Libya was a failure, and Afghanistan is a failure, and Venezuela or Syria or Iran will be failures, if we get around to toppling regimes in those countries: America is incapable of understanding or respecting foreigners’ instinct for self-rule.
The pattern in American interventions has been the same for ages. We are for self-determination everywhere, until such self-determination clashes with a commercial or security objective.
A common triggering event for American-backed overthrows is a leader trying to nationalize the country’s resources. This is why we ended up replacing democratically-elected Mohammed Mossadeq with the Shah in Iran, for instance.
Disrupting trade is also a frequent theme in these ploys, with a late-Fifties coup attempt in Indonesia or our various Cuban embargoes key examples. The plan often involves stimulating economic and political unrest in target nations as a precursor for American intervention.
We inevitably end up propping up dictators of our own, and the too-frequent pattern now — vividly demonstrated in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan — is puppet states collapsing and giving way to power vacuums and cycles of sectarian violence. Thanks, America!
Opposing such policies used to be a central goal of American liberalism. No more. Since 2016, it’s been stunning to watch the purging and/or conversion of what used to be antiwar voices, to the point where Orwellian flip-flops are now routine.
Earlier this month, onetime fierce Iraq war opponent Rachel Maddow went on TV to embrace John Bolton in a diatribe about how the poor National Security Adviser has been thwarted by Trump in efforts to topple Maduro.
“Regardless of what you thought about John Bolton before this, his career, his track record,” Maddow said. “Just think about John Bolton as a human being.”
The telecast was surreal. It was like watching Dick Cheney sing “Give Peace a Chance.”
Bolton stood out as a bomb-humping nut even among the Bush-era functionaries who pushed us into Iraq. He’s the living embodiment of “benevolent hegemony,” an imperial plan first articulated in the nineties by neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan.
It involves forcefully overturning any regime that resisted us, to spread the wonders of the American way to, as Norman Podhoretz once put it, “as many others as have the will and the ability to enjoy them.”
When Bush gave his famed “Axis of Evil” speech about Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, Bolton — prophetically, it seemed — gave a speech called “Beyond the Axis of Evil,” adding Cuba, Syria and Libya to the list.
Bolton, of course, is also on board with regime change in Venezuela, saying “this is our hemisphere.” Echoing the sentiment, Alabama Democratic Senator Doug Jones said Maduro, and his allies in Russia, need to vacate “our part of the world.”
This has all been cast as opposition to Russian support of Maduro. Maddow was ostensibly reacting to triggering news that Trump was stepping back on Venezuelan action after a chat with Vladimir Putin.
This isn’t about Russia, however. MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post were open cheering sections even when it came to endorsing Trump’s original decision to recognize Guaidó. It’s been much the same script with Syria, too, where even the faintest hint of discomfort with the idea of regime change has been excised from public view.
The social media era has made it much easier to keep pundits in line. Propaganda is effective when it’s relentless, personal, attacking, and one-sided. The idea isn’t to debate people, but to create an “ick” factor around certain ideas, so debate is pre-empted.
Don’t want to invade Syria? Get ready to be denounced as an Assadist. Feel ambivalent about regime change in Venezuela? You must love Putin and Maduro.
People end up either reflexively believing these things, or afraid to deal with vitriol they’ll get if they say something off-narrative. In the media world, it’s understood that stepping out of line on Venezuela or Syria will result in being removed from TV guest lists, loss of speaking income, and other problems.
This has effectively made intellectual objections to regime change obsolete. In the Trump era, things that not long ago aroused widespread horror — from torture to drone assassination to “rendition” to illegal surveillance to extrajudicial detention in brutal secret prisons around the world — inspire crickets now.
A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran an exposé about Guantanamo Bay that should have been a devastating piece of journalism. It showed site officials building a hospice, because prisoners are expected to grow old and die rather than ever sniff release. One prisoner was depicted sitting gingerly in court because of “chronic rectal pain” from being routinely sodomized in CIA prisons.
Ten years ago, Americans would have been deeply ashamed of such stories. Now, even liberals don’t care. The cause of empire has been cleverly re-packaged as part of #Resistance to Trump, when in fact it’s just the same old arrogance, destined to lead to the same catastrophes. Bad policy doesn’t get better just because you don’t let people talk about it.