Venezuelan Roulette

With Hugo Chávez's health uncertain, narcogenerals and Cuban-backed ideologues are vying for influence in Venezuela.

With cancer-stricken Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez clinging to life in a Havana hospital, an intense struggle for power is under way in Caracas, pitting Cuban-backed ideologues against narcogenerals. Venezuela's inept democratic opposition has no strategy for defending its interests, while career U.S. diplomats are stumbling toward legitimizing an authoritarian narcostate without getting anything in return. The future of Venezuela is hanging in the balance.

Two factions have now emerged within Chavismo. The first is led by Nicolás Maduro, who served for six years as Venezuela's foreign minister and heads a clique of ideologues loyal to Havana. In October, Chávez named Maduro as vice president and called upon his followers to support him in the snap elections that would take place if the president dies.

But even with the ailing president's blessing, Maduro will face competition. Diosdado Cabello, a military veteran and long-time collaborator of Chávez's who has fallen out of favor with the core Chavistas in recent years, is president of the National Assembly and Maduro's biggest potential rival in a post-Chavez power struggle. Cabello and a group of senior military officers implicated by U.S. authorities in narcotrafficking will never risk losing power and impunity. Moreover, Cabello has a personal grudge against the Castro brothers for the role they played in forcing him out of Chávez's inner circle 8 years ago, when his corrupt fortune gave him an independent source of power. The generals pushed Cabello back into leadership posts early last year to protect their interests as Chávez's health failed, and they are not ready to defer to Maduro and his civilian cadre.

Which faction will end up in the driver's seat depends on whether Chávez is able to take the oath of office for a new term on Jan. 10. If he does, Maduro will be designated vice president, positioning him to succeed Chávez and win a special election to fulfill his six-year term. On the other hand, if Chávez is not able to take the oath of office, the presidency will pass to the head of the National Assembly, Cabello, until a successor is elected. Clearly, the latter scenario will give Cabello the upper hand. So, Maduro is now arguing that Chávez is president and can initiate a new term by taking the oath at the Venezuelan embassy in Havana or whenever he returns to Venezuela. Either scenario would impair the legitimacy of a successor regime.

The Cubans are working feverishly to ensure Maduro's succession to preserve their multibillion-dollar windfall of oil and aid from Caracas. But they are not alone among foreign powers with an interest in preserving Chavismo after Chávez. China has pumped about $25 billion in loans that must be repaid in the coming years. Russia has sold $9 billion in arms and eager to capture lucrative oil and gas deals. Iran exploits Venezuelan territory as a platform for evading international sanctions and projecting a deadly Hezbollah and Quds Force presence near U.S. shores.

In addition, narcotraffickers have embraced the Venezuelan state a willing partner in their dangerous activities. According to sources familiar with ongoing investigations, U.S. officials have fresh, compelling information implicating Chávez, Cabello, his former minister of defense, his army chief, his newly appointed deputy Minister of Interior, and dozens of other senior military officials in cocaine smuggling and money laundering. These Venezuelan officials help transport tons of cocaine to Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, the United States, West Africa, and Europe.

The stakes are quite high for U.S. political, security and energy interests as well as for stability in the region. In November, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson held a long telephone conversation with Maduro to discuss normalizing relations with the Chávez regime. Following through would be a mistake.

If Washington and Caracas were to restore ambassadors at this crucial time, it would crush the hopes of the democratic opposition, legitimize Maduro and the Chavista succession, and interfere with ongoing U.S. law enforcement investigations against the Venezuelan narcostate. The only explanation for the timing of such an ill-conceived initiative is that career diplomats are rushing to act before Congress can second-guess their actions -- particularly in the context of confirmation hearings of secretary of state designate John Kerry.

Bipartisan leaders in Congress are paying closer attention to the dangerous developments in Venezuela than are the foreign policy agencies in the executive branch. It is vital that they weigh in urgently to ensure that U.S. diplomats make vital law enforcement, security, and human rights concerns a condition of rapprochement with Caracas.

Remarkably, Venezuela's own democratic opposition is virtually invisible in this process -- barely observers in Caracas and nonexistent in Washington and other foreign capitals. Ironically, while they have shied away for years from being associated with the United States, Maduro is eagerly accepting the State Department's advances. The putative opposition leaders could capture some relevance if they were to reject Cuban interventionism and demand that the regime come clean about Chávez's condition. They also should prepare a list of practical demands -- meaningful political, security, economic, and electoral reforms -- just in case one of the Chavista factions offers to share power in a bid for legitimacy. When elections are held, it is not certain that the opposition will agree on a unity candidate -- particularly because many believe that their last standard-bearer, Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski, was too quick to concede his November 2012 defeat.

It will surprise no one if the Chavista factions set aside their differences to sustain their hold on power. However, as long as U.S. diplomats do not give away the store, it will be a tenuous hold by a criminal regime. Once Chávez's legacy -- a narcoterrorist state allied with terrorists -- is exposed, decent Venezuelans may have a chance to recover and rebuild their country.


National Security

Civil Savant

How Andrew Marshall has shaped our world.

There is no category in the Guinness Book of World Records for "longest serving strategist" -- but there ought to be. Andrew Marshall, who has directed the Pentagon's Dickensian-sounding Office of Net Assessment for the past 40 years, would surely hold this record. And he adds to it every day, still active in body and insightful of mind at 91. Richard Nixon appointed him, and he has served every president since. Indeed, Barack Obama's strategic "pivot to the Pacific" -- right or wrong -- almost certainly derives from ideas that Mr. Marshall has been advancing for years about the need to respond to the rise of China as a world power.

But long before President Obama began to ponder Marshall's ideas, Ronald Reagan was briefed by him about the possibility of winning the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviet Union. Marshall, an economist by training, had grown convinced that the Soviet Union was spending a much greater share of its gross domestic product on the military than even the most detailed intelligence estimates allowed. He, his team, and a few Pentagon colleagues dug deeply into the data and came away convinced that the Russians were spending a quarter, a third, perhaps even more of their annual economic output on their national security.

Reagan's own intuitions about Soviet inefficiency were borne out by the group's insights, and he decided to act on Marshall's notion of pursuing a "cost-imposing" strategy on the Russians. This soon became the Reagan Doctrine of helping others to fight against Moscow-aligned regimes, the most notable success -- in the near term, at least -- coming in Afghanistan. For a very modest investment in putting some Stinger missiles into the hands of the mujahideen, it became possible to run the Soviet intervention there right off the rails. That we completely walked away from Afghanistan after the Russians left in 1989 is no fault of the cost-imposing strategy.

Marshall's Cold-War-winning concept wasn't just about arming rebels, either. He also strongly advocated a policy of encouraging the Saudis to produce more oil, so as to reduce the global per barrel price. Russian hard-currency revenues depended quite a bit on oil, so when the Saudis pursued this option, it struck a major blow to Moscow. There were other elements to the Marshall-inspired strategy, some of which still cannot be mentioned openly -- but they can be loosely described as fostering an assortment of exaggerated beliefs about American military capabilities that impelled the Soviets to take costly countermeasures.

The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 provided proof of the efficacy of the cost-imposing strategy. Earlier that same year the lop-sided victory in our first war with Iraq bore out yet another one of Marshall's big ideas: the notion that a "revolution in military affairs" was getting underway. Ironically, he took this idea from the Russians, who had long been thinking in terms of a technology-driven "military-technological revolution." Mr. Marshall saw, correctly, that a quantum change in strategic thought would only occur if technology were not the centerpiece. Rather, he felt, that major advances would be the product of organizational and doctrinal changes were. Yes, new tools were very important; but new practices had to accompany them as well.

In this respect, Mr. Marshall was hearkening to the broad notion of revolutionary changes in military affairs that had been advanced by historian Michael Roberts in a lecture he gave at Queen's University of Belfast in January of 1955. The talk spawned a major strand of research that scholars of military affairs have pursued now for many decades. Marshall's genius was in nurturing links between academics working in this field and the practitioners he served in the Pentagon.

Perhaps his biggest fan was Donald Rumsfeld, who also had a deep appreciation that technological change was having a profound impact on military practices. But the fall of Rumsfeld at the end of 2006, and the tendency to mischaracterize his views as entirely technology-driven, slowed Marshall in his march to bring the American military into the information age. Slowed, but not stopped, as even today he strives to champion notions of a nimbler and far more networked military -- something directly referred to in the public rollout of President Obama's strategic guidance exactly a year ago.

Andrew Marshall is to strategy what Admiral Hyman Rickover was to the nuclear navy: a true pioneering spirit and intellectual leader. The greatest similarity between the two lies in their long service and profound policy impact. But they differ in some important respects as well. Reagan found there was a point when he had to gently nudge Rickover into retirement, as the admiral, then in his 80s, seemed to have become more dogmatic and inflexible over time. Marshall, on the other hand, has grown even more intellectually supple over the years, his judgment guided by a quiet -- and quite amazing when on display -- command of facts. No wonder this magazine made him No. 44 on its list of top global thinkers this past year -- it's Hank Aaron's number.

I have been continually involved with Andrew Marshall, in one capacity or another, for three decades now, and can say without any reservation that he has gotten even better over time. When we met some weeks ago, for example, our conversation was about sea power in the information age, particularly the innovative approach that the Chinese navy seems to be taking. It was a short talk, but I have returned to his comments again and again ever since. Andrew Marshall plants ideas like seeds, knowing they'll germinate.

At the end of our meeting, I let Mr. Marshall know that I would be retiring in about a year-and-a-half. As I am some 30 years his junior, he first gave me one of his famous inscrutable looks -- then just laughed, loud and long.

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