Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Last week, US National Security Adviser John Bolton took direct aim at specific leaders in Latin America, declaring that the “troika of tyranny – Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua – is beginning to crumble.”
He also outlined new measures the Trump administration is taking, such as sanctions on the Central Bank of Venezuela, to hasten their demise.
Many may interpret Bolton’s declaration, which echoes President George W. Bush’s oft-repeated “axis of evil” phrase, as a new foundation for pursuing regime change.
The ‘three stooges’
These “three stooges of socialism,” as Bolton calls the leaders of the three countries, are are not the targets of his rhetoric alone. President Donald Trump is implementing direct measures against them, including restrictions on US dollar transactions by banks in Venezuela and Nicaragua, in an effort to cut off finances for the leaders of both countries.
When it comes to Cuba, the administration is reversing Obama-era policies designed to support the Cuban people and reinstating a cap on the amount Americans can send to their relatives there.
Trump has been very public about his policy of pushing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro out of power. He declared Maduro an illegitimate leader and said that all options remain on the table, including a military intervention. Maduro has long accused the US of supporting a coup against him, and now we are openly using all the available tools to remove him from power.
The administration has also voiced support for a change in leadership in Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega and others associated with him have been added to the US sanctions list.
Bolton has a history of supporting regime changes and his latest statements are likely fueling the notion that the United States is prepared to throw its weight behind leaders it favors.
While the administration’s efforts to unseat socialist leaders in Latin America have been uncharacteristically disciplined, these moves align with the President’s domestic attacks on perceived political opponents whom he labels socialists.
And it’s important to note that Trump has had harsher words for socialist leaders in Latin America – who do not pose threats to US national security or our sovereignty – than he’s had for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s overseeing an ongoing attack on our democracy.
The message from the administration is that not all regimes are created equal. Trump appears more willing to push back against leaders who espouse a political doctrine that he views as a threat to his own political standing.
Behavioral therapy in Iran?
The Trump administration has said that it is not seeking regime change in Iran, but rather a change in behavior.
The State Department has denounced the regime’s “grotesque level of self-interest,” routinely says that the Iranian people “deserve better” and uses social media to encourage the Iranian people to speak out against the government.
This looks, sounds and smells like support for regime change in a lot of ways.
The juxtaposition between the administration’s attitude toward the Iranian regime, which currently has no nuclear weapons, and its approach toward North Korea – a regime that has weapons it has threatened to use against us – further highlights the discrepancies in our foreign policy.
Throw in the allure of a possible Nobel Peace Prize, for example, and the President seems willing to let dangerous authoritarian regimes like North Korea get away with the illegal proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, human rights abuses, cyberattacks and more.
Changing of the guard
While the administration is preoccupied with influencing regime change in countries like Venezuela and Iran, there are other major leadership transitions underway that the United States should focus on if promoting democracy is a priority for this President.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was ousted earlier this month after nearly 30 years of rule, and the military now looks to be in control of the country for up to two years. While the military council, led by the generals who deposed Bashir, charts a way forward, it is unclear the Sudanese people will gain any new freedoms now that the dictator has been toppled. The United States should communicate that a transition toward actual democratic governance could benefit Sudan, with an agreement to lift US sanctions.
In Algeria, hundreds of thousands of protesters are continuing their pressure campaign for sweeping democratic reform more than two weeks after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned on April 2.
Protests calling for the ouster of a cadre of officials – many of whom have dominated Algerian politics since the country gained independence from France in 1962 – have been peaceful, but the Algerian military has warned that “time is running out,” suggesting that they could be gearing up for more violent responses. The US government has an opportunity – and a responsibility – to communicate to Algerian authorities that protecting democratic rights, including the right to peacefully protest, is critical.
But it will take work to ensure that Trump’s comments are in sync with any outreach by the administration. On Friday, Trump undercut his own team yet again on US policy towards Libya. The President decided to endorse Khalifa Haftar after the military strongman mounted an armed attack against the sitting government, which is backed by the UN. Just days before Trump made this endorsement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had denounced Haftar’s efforts.
We are likely going to witness a series of regime changes over the coming months. The administration’s ability to position itself as an honest broker would be reinforced by developing a consistent approach to leadership transitions rather than continuing to support the ouster of certain oppressive leaders while embracing others.