Opinion writer

An anti-government activist fires a improvised weapon during clashes with riot police in a protest in Caracas on July 28. (Ronaldo Schemidt/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, my colleague Josh Rogin’s report that the State Department was considering excising “democratic” and “just” (as in a “just” society) from its mission and purpose statements induced a backlash in foreign policy circles. The State Department’s faulty reasoning was revealed before the day was out — by both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump.

In a rare appearance in the State Department briefing room, perhaps a sign that the rotten press he and his department had been receiving was starting to sting, Tillerson addressed a range of issues, including Venezuela, where two prominent opponents of the regime were seized by security forces in the wake of an election (boycotted by the opposition) to elect an all-powerful Constituent Assembly that moves the country further down the road of totalitarianism. (The Constituent Assembly “will have the power to rewrite the Venezuelan Constitution, which [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro desires, and is expected to replace the previous legislative body, where the opposition has a majority. The new body will establish a ‘truth commission’ to prosecute political opponents.”) Tillerson told reporters:

Clearly, what we want to see is for Venezuela to return to its constitution, return to its scheduled elections, and allow the people of Venezuela to have the voice in their government they deserve.

We are very, very troubled by what we’re seeing unfold following the constituent assembly vote, which went about as we expected, but the re-arrest of opposition leaders last night is very alarming. This could lead to an outbreak of further violence in the country. The situation, from a humanitarian standpoint, is already becoming dire. We are evaluating all our policy options as to what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future and wants to leave of his own accord or we can return the government processes back to their constitution. But we are quite concerned about we’re seeing down there. It is a policy discussion that’s currently under development through the interagency process this week.

In other words, democracy matters greatly to us and has consequences for the region. If the State Department’s mission no longer extends to defending democracy, why bother even addressing it, let alone taking action against Maduro’s thuggishness? Even the White House joined in condemning Maduro. “The United States condemns the actions of the Maduro dictatorship,” Trump said in a written statement. “Mr. [Leopoldo] Lopez and Mr. [Antonio] Ledezma are political prisoners being held illegally by the regime.” The statement continued, “The United States holds Maduro –- who publicly announced just hours earlier that he would move against his political opposition –- personally responsible for the health and safety of Mr. Lopez, Mr. Ledezma, and any others seized.” While the statement avoided the term “democracy,” the evisceration of democratic protections and the unjust (there’s that word again) actions of an authoritarian regime remain a concern of the United States precisely because it is in our national interest to maintain a peaceful and free hemisphere.

In reacting to the decision to remove democracy promotion from the State Department’s mission Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told me on Tuesday, “Everything we do to foster democracy in emerging states is an investment in national security.” He explained, “Democracies make better partners for peace and prosperity. Renouncing our commitment to work for the values we hold dear would be a dangerous abdication of U.S. leadership, making our world less safe by destabilizing global security. From the Arab Spring to Venezuela and Washington, we can’t forget the fight for democracy requires more than a Twitter account and the adoption of a few budgetary changes.” Menendez, in reaction to the State Department’s refusal to fill numerous senior spots and rumors of a reorganization that will eliminate many programs and positions that support human rights, introduced legislation to thwart the realpolitik crowd. He told me that “last week I passed an amendment to the funding authorization bill before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to codify and mandate the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, whose responsibility it is to support democracy and human rights as a critical component of the State Department’s work.” He vowed, “I will fight tooth and nail so the U.S. government doesn’t walk away from our responsibility to conduct foreign policy in a responsible way that doesn’t cripple our global standing and directly harms our national security interests.”

Candidly, the administration’s foreign policy objectives remain murky and incoherent. If the State Department doesn’t know what it stands for, how does it expect adversaries and friends around the world to know where the United States stands?