View of a graffiti depicting somebody who might be Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez (C, in Caracas on March 11, 2015. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro moved closer Wednesday to ruling by decree after the legislature held a first vote that would allow him to act against “external or internal” threats to peace. FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

Lost amid the Iran kerfuffle this week was a curious decision by the Obama administration to declare Venezuela an “extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States, in order to levy sanctions against individual Venezuelan leaders.

Now it wasn’t curious that the Obama administration sanctioned another country. Indeed, the best way to summarize the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy would be to watch this classic Monty Python sketch, but replace the word “spam” with “sanctions.”

The general consensus is that the sanctions strengthen rather than weaken Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s political position. From the New York Times’ William Neumann:

Suddenly, the United States is being cast again in the familiar role of the hemispheric bully trying to push around its smaller neighbors. And Mr. Maduro has taken on the mantle of victim, stirring up patriotic support at home, setting the opposition on the defensive and declaring that “we will never kneel before this arrogant empire that attacks and threatens” his country.

“The optics of this are really just awful,” said David A. Smilde, a sociology professor at Tulane University who lives part time in Venezuela. “It was a strategic mistake. I think the Maduro government is going to get a lot of play out of this.”

So this begs the question: why take a step that gives an authoritarian zombie regime a new lease on life?

Glenn Greenwald offers an… interesting explanation. After a throat-clearing of whataboutism on U.S. human rights policy, he gets to his thesis:

In essence, Venezuela is one of the very few countries with significant oil reserves which does not submit to U.S. dictates, and this simply cannot be permitted (such countries are always at the top of the U.S. government and media list of Countries To Be Demonized). Beyond that, the popularity of Chavez and the relative improvement of Venezuela’s poor under his redistributionist policies petrifies neoliberal institutions for its ability to serve as an example; just as the Cuban economy was choked by decades of U.S. sanctions and then held up by the U.S. as a failure of Communism, subverting the Venezuelan economy is crucial to destroying this success.

Well… that’s a theory, I suppose. One that would be bolstered if:

  1. Chavez was still alive and running the country rather than a guy with a 22 percent approval rating;
  2. Venezuela’s pre-sanctions economy was thriving rather than, um, not even remotely thriving.
  3. Anyone beyond Greenwald thinks that the Cuban economy is an exemplar model.

No, seriously, this is nuts. As Jamila Trindle, another critic of the sanctions, points out in Foreign Policy:

Venezuelans have suffered through a severe economic downturn in the past two years since Chávez’s death. The economy contracted 2.7 percent last year and, according to the International Monetary Fund, could shrink another 7 percent this year. As inflation soared to the world’s highest rate — almost 70 percent — consumers face widespread shortages of food and medicine.Falling oil prices have compounded the economic headache for Maduro because lower receipts for nationalized energy companies means less money in government coffers.

So no, this ain’t about Venezuela’s existential threat to neoliberalism.

So what is it about? Tim Padgett offers a different bank shot analysis that’s almost the exact opposite of Greenwald’s take:

Obama, it turns out, needs his own diversion right now. Or he will very soon if – and it looks increasingly likely – his administration decides in the coming weeks to remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of international terrorism sponsors.

That move is all but necessary for normalizing relations with the communist island. But it won’t sit well with U.S. conservatives, especially the Cuban-American congressional caucus, who will call the terrorism-list concession more proof that Obama is a foreign policy weakling who likes getting sand kicked in his face by the Castro regime.

Which is why Obama needs to flex his own beach brawn – and he’s betting that playing hardball with Venezuela will blunt the impending Beltway condemnation on Cuba.

“It certainly helps placate the people who will say he’s soft on the Latin American left,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

Well… that’s a theory, I suppose. Except that there had to be better ways to blast Venezuela’s imploding polity than imposing sanctions. Indeed, this should have been a moment when a little regional diplomacy might have been useful. The disturbing thing about Venezuela’s slow-motion implosion has been the unwillingness of the rest of Latin America to acknowledge that there’s something wrong in Caracas.

My theory is a bit more simple, and has the virtue of not assuming that the executive branch is filled with moustache-twirling villains or brilliant strategists. This administration’s first option when encountering an unpleasant regime is to use sanctions. If that doesn’t work… more sanctions!! Then maybe something else.

This week the GOP has demonstrated quite handily that it can’t manage foreign policy very well. But I’d feel better about America’s prospects in the world if the Obama administration’s foreign policy didn’t seem like it was running on sanctions autopilot.