From Able but Unwilling, to Willing but Unable

No U.S. president has ever devoted as much of a U.N.G.A. speech to Venezuela as Donald Trump just did. But does he have the chops to lead the international response to Maduro?

If I’d told you a year ago that a U.S. president would stand up in front of those famous green marble tiles in New York to give a speech that would mention Iraq once, Afghanistan once, Syria four times and Venezuela eight times, you probably wouldn’t have believed me.

But that’s exactly what happened this morning as Donald Trump, against all odds, put fighting the Venezuelan dictatorship at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

We have also imposed tough, calibrated sanctions on the socialist Maduro regime in Venezuela, which has brought a once thriving nation to the brink of total collapse.

The socialist dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro has inflicted terrible pain and suffering on the good people of that country. This corrupt regime destroyed a prosperous nation by imposing a failed ideology that has produced poverty and misery everywhere it has been tried. To make matters worse, Maduro has defied his own people, stealing power from their elected representatives to preserve his disastrous rule.

The Venezuelan people are starving and their country is collapsing. Their democratic institutions are being destroyed. This situation is completely unacceptable and we cannot stand by and watch.

As a responsible neighbor and friend, we and all others have a goal. That goal is to help them regain their freedom, recover their country, and restore their democracy. I would like to thank leaders in this room for condemning the regime and providing vital support to the Venezuelan people.

The United States has taken important steps to hold the regime accountable. We are prepared to take further action if the government of Venezuela persists on its path to impose authoritarian rule on the Venezuelan people.

We are fortunate to have incredibly strong and healthy trade relationships with many of the Latin American countries gathered here today. Our economic bond forms a critical foundation for advancing peace and prosperity for all of our people and all of our neighbors.

I ask every country represented here today to be prepared to do more to address this very real crisis. We call for the full restoration of democracy and political freedoms in Venezuela. (Applause.)

The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. (Applause.) From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.

The speech was a marked departure from the Obama Administration’s line. Under Obama, countering the Venezuelan government wasn’t even an explicit policy goal of U.S. foreign policy. Obama’s team took one look at the hemisphere and decided they had two basic goals there: normalization with Cuba and peace in Colombia. If those are your goals, it’s clear you’re not going to poke your finger into Chávez and later Maduro’s eyes: those guys were well positioned to wreck both initiatives. And so, not so much by design but by process of elimination, the Obama policy towards Venezuela amounted to “just don’t mess with it.”

It’s a peculiar and maddening situation to be in.

That was enraging. An administration with all the diplomatic chops, all the credibility, all the room for maneuver in the world, decided it just couldn’t be bothered to try to forestall Venezuela’s authoritarian slide.

Now, that formula’s been reversed: the new administration is eager to to take the fight to Maduro, but can it? Operating an interagency process that just doesn’t work, struggling to ensure the State Department and the White House speak with a single voice, badly under-staffed, short of experienced hands and dealing with a region where being seen as too close to Donald Trump can be politically suicidal, the U.S. now has all of the willingness Obama didn’t bring to the Venezuela file, but very little of the ability.

It’s a peculiar and maddening situation to be in.

Even as the president lectures the world on the need to put pressure on Venezuela, international talks likely to stabilize the Maduro regime go on unimpeded in the Dominican Republic. A more skillfully run administration would’ve found it relatively easy to quash a negotiation that doesn’t really gel with the rest of its approach. But weirdly the State Department seems to favor the Dominican track, because Foggy Bottom is running its own private Venezuela policy, much softer than the White House’s, through an Obama-era holdover that’s seems to have the rookie Secretary of State’s total confidence.

Obama might have been able to lead the international fight against chavismo, but he sure wasn’t willing. Trump —to his credit— isn’t just willing, he seems downright eager…but how can a guy who can’t even get his own National Security Council and his State Department to sing from the same policy hymn sheet hope to lead the hemisphere on something like this?