How Sanctions on Venezuela Exposed a White House-State Department Rift

Who gets to make foreign policy?

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

It took five words from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to prompt a collective gasp from those in Washington who spend their Sunday mornings watching the morning talk shows, as well as speculation about how quickly he’d depart the Trump administration. But Tillerson’s future, Axios reported, was in question well before he told Chris Wallace, the Fox News Sunday host, that “the president speaks for himself” when responding to a question about Trump’s values and his response to the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville.

Axios quoted Trump saying, “Rex just doesn’t get it, he’s totally establishment in his thinking,” citing examples ranging from differences over Qatar’s dispute with its neighbors (Trump has called Qatar the biggest supporter of terrorism in the Middle East; Tillerson supports the monarchy); the Iran nuclear deal (which Tillerson has urged Trump to keep and which the president has called the worst deal in history); and sanctions on Venezuela (which the U.S. imposed last Friday over the State Department’s objections).

In one sense, the kinds of differences of opinion described are characteristic of the kinds of bureaucratic disputes the White House and the State Department have indulged for decades, even if it’s rare for the disputes to be aired so publicly. As far back as 1983, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who headed the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter, wrote of the conflict between President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state and the NSC, noting: “Recent years have seen a full measure not only of the traditional conflict between the State and Defense Departments but of the newer conflict between State and the N.S.C. for pre-eminence in the making of foreign policy.” That was true during the Obama years, when the NSC kept a famously tight grip on foreign policy, and it’s true in the Trump administration, as the pre-eminent maker of foreign policy is even more a source of confusion, given competing power centers within the Trump White House plus disaffection within the State Department.

Craig Deare, a professor at the National Defense University who served briefly in the Trump administration’s NSC as the senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told me the NSC is typically more action-oriented. They want to develop options for the president on how to advance national-security policy.

“For this particular NSC, one can make the case, that’s particularly so because of the number of senior military officials in it. But they are very thoughtful guys,” Deare said of the council, which is headed by General H.R. McMaster and counts high-ranking military officers among its senior staff. “That being said, as military guys, they are going to be more action-oriented or results-driven perhaps than your classic foreign-service officer who values diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake.”

Juan Gonzalez, who worked on Latin America at the State Department, NSC, and the office of the vice president until January, cited a different dynamic that fuels divisions between them.

“When I was at the White House, and I was advising the vice president, we pushed the State Department to be much more aggressive, because the list of priorities at the White House is not quite as expansive as the State Department, where they actually have embassies on the ground,” Gonzalez, who is now an associate vice president at the Cohen Group, a consulting firm, told me.

Gonzalez cited the example of Venezuela. The Axios report singled out Thomas Shannon, the undersecretary of state for political affairs who is a Latin America expert, for pushing a much softer approach for the country that has slid quickly into dictatorship under President Nicolas Maduro, as opposed to the sanctions favored by the White House. In his three-decade career at the State Department, Shannon has served in multiple Latin American countries, including as ambassador to Brazil and, more significantly, in Caracas in the 1990s when Hugo Chavez first came to political prominence.

Gonzalez said of Shannon, a career foreign-service official with contacts in Venezuela: “He understands the country very, very well. I think he gets a bad rap for not essentially falling victim to wanting to do something now—or something that's hard line for the sake of doing it, but rather he’s thinking much longer term.” The Axios report said Shannon had influenced Tillerson’s decision to oppose sanctions. The State Department said it doesn’t typically comment on media reports.

Deare pointed out that Venezuela was in turmoil long before Maduro increased the powers of the presidency by dissolving the nation’s constituent assembly. The U.S., he said, despite multiple rounds of talks sponsored by various actors including the Vatican, had little to show for its Venezuela policy. He said it was suspected within the Trump administration that Shannon had ensured no strong action was taken against Caracas. That posture did not begin in Tillerson’s State Department, but it seemed the White House was growing frustrated that it hadn’t ended there either.

“And because Tom Shannon is, at the end of the day, a diplomat, he prefers dialogue,” Deare said.

Another former national-security official defended this approach, as well as the utility of “maintaining a diplomatic channel as one of a multitude of tools in Venezuela. … Some in the U.S. government haven’t fully come to terms with the fact that the Maduro government isn’t going to collapse or disappear. And it’s going to have to be reckoned with if there’s a political transition in Venezuela.”

But Deare pointed out that the Trump administration’s action in February to designate two Venezuelans, including the country’s vice president, as drug kingpins had had been developed as options before this administration took office.“Those things take a long time to build. They were built before were got there, but no one willing to pull the trigger,” he said, pointing again to the State Department’s approach. “So as soon as the [Trump] administration got in and they had the option to do something, they pulled the trigger.”

Venezuela policy is just one example of current divisions between the White House and State Department. And debates within an administration are to some extent a normal part of the policy process. But Ned Price, the NSC spokesman in the Obama-era White House, told me that while divisions appear in any administration it is difficult to gauge who is making foreign policy in the Trump administration. Even if the White House and State Department were aligned, it’s not clear the White House itself speaks with one voice on foreign policy.

“The NSC in this administration is not the be-all-end-all of U.S. foreign policy that it was in previous administrations,” he said. “There are competing factions within the White House. It’s a fallacy to assume that the Trump NSC has the final say. They are one voice in a very loud White House.”

Still, the NSC said in a statement Monday that Tillerson “remains a trusted and highly valued member of the President’s cabinet and national security team. Rumors to the contrary are absolutely false. We look forward to the Secretary continuing to make vital contributions to the Trump Administration and to American foreign policy long into the future.”