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Admiral James Stavridis on the Latest in Venezuela

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HH: So pleased to welcome back Admiral James Stavridis, retired United States Navy, now with the Carlyle Group and a frequent guest when matters turn to global affairs. Admiral, though, welcome. Good morning, great to have you.

JS: Great to be with you, Hugh.

HH: I want to begin before we turn to Venezuela with something of a sidebar that you and I have talked about a long time ago, which is the culture of mentoring in the military. The reason I bring it up, last night I had a chance to spend a good hour with my friend, Brian Ferguson, a retired SEAL who now leads Arena Labs. And Brian, I did not know this, Arena Labs is wildly successful, but I did not know he had been your aide, and he looks up to you. And every time I turn around, I run into a Stavridis aide or disciple somewhere. And it struck me again that you, and you’re not alone in this, you and senior members of the military invest in young people a great deal. It’s sort of the culture of the military.

JS: I guess it is, Hugh, and I would say that the reason you keep running into them is because I need more help than the average admiral. But Brian came to me as a young civilian working in the Pentagon, had this dream in his eye to become a U.S. Navy SEAL. I was skeptical, but we talked about it, and it was clear to me that he had what it took, and went on to a brilliant career in the SEALs, and now is putting all that innovation that he learned in special forces to use in the private sector. I’m very proud of Brian, and thank you for mentioning that.

HH: Yeah, that Arena Labs place is just amazing. I love spending time with the special operators who are now out in industry doing different things. And how they bring not just mentoring but an attitude of teambuilding and innovation, I know this is in Sea Power, but you can’t run a ship with one MOS, right? You need to have a whole bunch of different people running a ship, and indeed, the entire military.

JS: Exactly, and the special forces bring that sense of let’s try it. And there’s not enough of that in various sectors in the U.S. economy. So when you see people like Brian go into that world, you know sparks will follow, things will happen. And it won’t always be successful. You know, you’ll miss more than you’ll hit. But you will succeed long term with innovation. That’s the message of special forces.

HH: Let’s talk about the innovation of American foreign policy vis-à-vis Venezuela.

JS: Sure.

HH: It is clear, Eliana Johnson and I were talking about this, that the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and the National Security Advisor are using Twitter to lever Maduro out of there, to try and catapult him out of there. And Marco Rubio specifically, three days ago, tweeted this. Future of democracy in Venezuela is largely in the hands of six men – General Vladimir Padrino, Admiral Remigio Ceballos, Major General Jesús Rafael Suárez Chourio, Admiral Giuseppe_Alessandrello_Cimadevilla, Major General Edgar Valentín Cruz Arteaga, and Major General Antonio Benavidez Torrez. First question, do you know any of those guys?

JS: I know the second admiral you mentioned. And I think that these are serious men who are calculating closely which way the wind is blowing. And I am cautiously optimistic that this one is going to land diplomatically. And I think the Trump administration, which has had some hits and had some misses as we were just talking about a moment ago, is going at this one with a great deal of innovation and using all the tools – economic, diplomatic, political, social networks, highly effectively. And I think that we can land this thing. I’d say three in four chance the military rolls on Maduro, Maduro’s out of there.

HH: Now when you specifically address senior officers by name and then Senator Rubio goes on to say amnesty is yours, you’re speaking for Juan Guaido there. But they did, the national assembly did offer them amnesty.

JS: Yes.

HH: I actually don’t know that there’s a precedent for this. We tried this, I think, in Chile, and it went very, very badly wrong under Nixon. Have we tried this successfully before?

JS: You can make the argument that this is how we got Idi Amin out of his nation back in the 80s. But in recent diplomatic history, it has not. It’s often proposed. There were discussions about this with Saddam Hussein. Most recently, in my experience as the supreme allied commander in NATO, Hugh, in Libya. As we were launching that campaign, we tried everything we could to convince Muammar Qaddafi to simply leave and offered him a number of different, really, attractive next places he could go. Typically, these repressionist dictators hold on longer than they should, and someone like Qaddafi ends up murdered by his own people. I think Maduro’s a weak personality. And I think there’s at least a chance that he will waver, the military will push him out, and he can go off and live happily ever after on a hacienda outside of Havana.

HH: Yeah, Baby Doc Duvalier took the Idi Amin option as well.

JS: Yes. Yes. That’s a good example.

HH: It does happen. But then I go back to the military. And what Senator Rubio was saying is you can be part of the rebuild, because you have not open fired on the civilians. That’s the implication, is that you have not crossed a line, yet. Do you think that’s actually possible for them to immediately go in with President-Designate Guaido and begin to function as a real military functions, for example, in this country in support of the civilian government?

JS: I think so. And I’ll give you an example of where we didn’t play this one particularly well, was in Iraq. After we defeated the Iraqi Armed Forces in the invasion in 2003-2004, rather than saying to them now is your chance to become a professional military, we simply decapitated them. We fired them all. We put a lot of the senior ones in jail. And that army, that Iraqi Army, is what built the resistance, which we had to fight. And you can drop a plum line from that to the Islamic State. So I think that we would be well-served to give this military the opportunity and tell them this is your chance.

HH: Arguably the worst foreign policy decision of the new millennium was the decision to disband the Iraqi Army.

JS: Totally. Totally.

HH: I’m still not even sure who made it. Do you think it was Paul Bremer? Was it…

JS: I do. I do.

HH: You do?

JS: I think unquestionably, it was Paul Bremer. At that time, I was the chief of staff to Don Rumsfeld, who a number of people have tried to say this was a Rumsfeld decision. Bremer came back, you’ll recall, he was kind of the viceroy to Iraq.

HH: Yes.

JS: This was his idea, his proposal. Rumsfeld was skeptical about it, but Bremer pushed it over the top in the White House. So I think that’s one that Paul Bremer in the history books will have to answer for. And I agree with you, worst decision of the 21st Century. It has cost thousands of American lives and a couple trillion dollars.

HH: And hundreds of thousands of Syria…I mean, it’s just one of the all-time dumb things.

JS: Yeah.

HH: And it’s wondering, you know, if you had gamed it out, do you suppose that if that had been table gamed, that it would have come out differently?

JS: I do. And I think, again, as we often see, Hugh, and you know this as a student of history, we don’t spend enough time trying to understand the history, the culture of given nations and the institutions within those nations. This was a Soviet-trained army in Iraq. They would have snapped into place, and I think become a pretty effective force. Iraq would be a very different and much more positive place if we had been smarter about decapitating that force. We really…

HH: That’s a very good lesson for American military planners as they think, and diplomats, and Secretary Pompeo, John Bolton, the Vice President, and the President to keep in mind as they deal with the Venezuelan military. I hadn’t thought much about that, but that is an excellent, excellent caution. Speaking of Secretary Pompeo, a minute ago he tweeted out, “Great to meet the next generation of freedom-loving Slovaks at GlobSec. Their commitment to democracy is inspiring. I have no doubt they have the #CourageToBeFree. You don’t hear much about Slovakia, or indeed, much of the former Yugoslavian republic. How fair is freedom in that world, Admiral Stavridis?

JS: You know, it’s a mixed picture. And first of all, I applaud Secretary Pompeo for simply going to Eastern Europe, and to the Balkans. We have a tendency to put them sort of out of sight, out of mind in the global economic and security scene. So he’s been on a bit of a tour through that region. And mixed picture as follows: The Balkan nations are now consolidating and joining NATO. That’s a good thing. Tiny Montenegro, we’ll see Macedonia, now known as North Macedonia, join NATO. That’s what’s keeping the peace there in a part of the world that looked like Syria 20 years ago. The bad news is on the far end of that, Poland, somewhat in Hungary, we’re seeing repression not yet to the degree that we ought to unduly worry about it, but you see some of those nations pulling away from some of the democratic norms. And I think that’s part of why Secretary Pompeo is going to shore that up within the context of NATO.

HH: My last question for you, Admiral, this is concerning to me. The European Union reached a provisional deal today on new rules governing the import gas pipeline called Nordstream 2. It was a compromise of sorts. The Germans want Nordstream 2. The anti-Russian bloc wants no part of it. What do you make of this development which appears to guarantee that this 760 mile pipeline already under construction is going to roll from Russia into Germany?

JS: It’s a bad, bad deal from a U.S. perspective deal, Hugh, for two reasons. One is it will increase the dependence of Europe, notably Germany, on gas coming from Europe, on hydrocarbons, broadly. And then secondly, this would have been a terrific market for U.S. liquified natural gas. And with that pipeline, it diminishes the economic case for doing that. So this is a strategic and an economic miss from the U.S. perspective. We’re trying to continue to push back on that. The Germans are not playing nicely with us on this one.

HH: So as a former NATO allied supreme commander, what’s a NATO commander to do when the EU basically undercuts the entire mission?

JS: You are very frustrated, and I went through this in Libya, Hugh, when we did not see a number of the NATO allies step up and participate in that campaign, which was entirely legitimate and under the auspices not only of NATO, but on the United Nations. We continue to have a disagreement with the European Union, as you know, about Iran. And we’re seeing the Europeans also undercutting the sanctions we’ve placed on Iran. So we, there’s no easy answer here. We’re not going to walk out of NATO or throw up our hands and stop dealing with the Europeans. But we need to keep steady pressure on them. I think this is something Secretary Pompeo is doing quite well.

HH: Admiral James Stavridis, always a pleasure. Follow him on Twitter, @StavridisJ.

End of interview.


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