President Trump is notoriously thin-skinned. And nothing gets under it quite like observations that he’s behaving just like his predecessor, Barack Obama. Yet there’s no denying that he’s behaving towards Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro just as Obama did towards Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.
No doubt you recall Obama declaring that Assad must go:
The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.
(The Washington Post, August 18, 2011)
Yet he stood by as Assad not only defied him but outlasted his presidency. Unsurprisingly, citizen Trump led the chorus of those who ridiculed Obama as
- incompetent for sticking America’s nose in the middle of Syria’s civil war; and
- gutless for failing to back up his declaration with force.
Is everyone seeing how incompetently our country is being run by watching the mess with Syria? Our leaders don’t know what they are doing!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2013
Except that Trump ridiculing Obama as ignoble is just the latest example of pot calling kettle black. Because he has made an even bigger mess of America’s involvement in Syria. I duly noted how he was aping Obama in many commentaries, including “In Finally Criticizing Russia re Syria, Trump Criticizes Himself,” February 26, 2018.
Now he’s sticking America’s nose in the middle of Venezuela’s civil unrest. What’s more, he too is failing to back up his (red-line) declaration – that Maduro must go – with force.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told the Security Council on Wednesday the Trump administration is determined to remove President Nicolás Maduro from power in Venezuela, preferably through diplomatic and economic pressure, but ‘all options are on the table’ — and Russia and others need to step aside.
(The Associated Press, April 10, 2019)
Yet, like Obama, Trump is standing by as Maduro is not only defying him but threatening to outlast his presidency too.
Trump administration officials had expected that Wednesday might turn out to be the [third] beginning of the end for President Nicolas Maduro with senior government figures withdrawing support and the opposition launching a mass uprising with military backing. …
But the promised defections didn’t happen, the military uprising never materialized and Maduro still appeared to be firmly in command of the South American nation.
(The Associated Press, May 1, 2019)
Frankly, the only thing missing from this unfolding symmetry is a Trump-like buffoon ridiculing Trump the way he ridiculed Obama.
What is not missing, however, is the Machiavellian hand (or, in this case, the Manchurian string) of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Because, just as he championed and enabled Assad’s defiance against Obama, Putin is doing the same for Maduro’s against Trump. And nobody should be surprised that Trump seems even less inclined to risk confrontation with Putin over Maduro than Obama was to risk it over Assad.
To be fair, Putin has far more vested in keeping Maduro than Trump has in seeing him go. This, not least because Trump couldn’t show less regard for (or knowledge of) quaint geostrategic principles like spheres of influence and the Monroe Doctrine (more on these under sub-heading of the Cuban Missile Crisis below).
The Kremlin is doing its utmost to prevent Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s administration from collapsing. …
[A]n absolute breakdown of the Venezuelan economy, prompted by political transitions in Caracas, may even end up with losing billions of dollars invested by the Russians.
(Warsaw Institute, February 21, 2019)
In any event, despite his bluster, Trump is faring no better in Venezuela than Obama fared in Syria. As it happens, I presaged Trump’s fecklessness in “Cry for Venezuela,” March 4, 2019. I noted, among other things, that Trump is so
- infatuated by idle flattery that Maduro need only stroke his fragile ego to tame his bluster — the way Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and other dictators have done so effectively; and
- gutless he does not have the cojones to take out Maduro — the way former President George H.W. Bush took out Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.
Not to mention that Trump is betraying his military bluster by waging ham-handed psychological warfare against Maduro. It was on full display last week when his administration tried to explain or deflect from its failure to make Maduro go:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed Tuesday that embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro was preparing to leave the country for Cuba, but was talked out of it by Russia.
‘He had an airplane on the tarmac, he was ready to leave this morning as we understand it and the Russians indicated he should stay.’
(CNN, May 1, 2019)
Even worse, though, is the hapless and confusing way the Trump administration is dealing with credible reports about Russia propping up Maduro:
On the one hand, as indicated above, his secretary of state is telling the world that
The Russians have people working over there in the hundreds, if not more. These are the folks who are actually controlling the direction of travel for Venezuela. It’s largely Cuban security forces that are protecting Maduro in his hiding place.
(The Washington Post, May 3, 2019)
On the other hand, Trump is telling the world that
[Putin] is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela. And I feel the same way.
(Bloomberg, May 3, 2019)
How’s that for the idiomatic right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing? And this bungling is not a forgivable exception; it’s a foreboding feature of the Trump administration.
No doubt you recall the international humiliation Trump caused when he stood shoulder to shoulder with Putin at their Helsinki summit. This, because he told the world that he believed Putin’s “strong and powerful denial” that Russia invaded US democracy during the 2016 presidential election. In doing so, he made a mockery of his own intelligence agencies’ strong and consensus finding that Russia did. I denounced him in “Helsinki Summit: Trump Hails Russian Propaganda, Rejects American Intelligence,” July 17, 2018.
You probably thought the puppetry Putin played with Trump back then was so surreal, it had to have been a fluke. But here is Trump showing yet again (re: Venezuela) that he has no compunction about defying US intelligence agencies and his own Cabinet secretaries to tow Russia’s party line.
Incidentally, one can understand this arrogant narcissist refusing to acknowledge that Russia invaded to help him get elected. And only his narcissistic hope that Russian will invade to help him again in 2020 explains his dogged refusal to order any effort to stop it – American democracy be damned.
But it defies logic – to the point of being incriminating – that he’s refusing to acknowledge that Russia is propping up Maduro. Hell, Trump is behaving like such a patsy, I suspect he’s becoming an embarrassment even to Putin – who would undoubtedly prefer a more worthy adversary as a matter of professional honor.
This is why the Manchurian allusion I coined in “Trump Framing FBI, Appeasing Russia. Treasonous?” February 1, 2018, seems so apt. #Kompromat! #Useful Idiot!
Granted, Trump is behaving like a patsy with North Korean President Kim Jong-un too.
Even so, Trump publicly declared that Kim conducting any nuclear tests would be a red line for their relationship. Kim conducted a nuclear test. But, like a typical doormat of a girlfriend, Trump pretended it never happened.
He then publicly declared that Kim firing missiles would be a red line. Kim fired a barrage of missiles on Saturday. Again, Trump pretended it did not happen. (Sympathetic pundits are helping him save face by redrawing his red line at the firing of long-range missiles to overlook the short-range ones Kim fired.)
Anything in this very interesting world is possible, but I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 4, 2019
That, my friends, is the very definition of a (dangerous) fool in love.
I warned about the unrequited nature of their relationship in “Trump Loves Kim. Kim Loves Nukes. And Never the Twain Shall Greet,” October 1, 2018. But God help us if Trump’s vainglorious pursuit of a Nobel Peace Prize is the driving force behind his antic wooing of Kim. Never mind the prevailing suspicion that Trump’s strongman ideations are such that he just can’t help evincing more affinity for dictators like Putin, Jong-un, and Xi than democrats like May, Macron, and Merkel. But I digress …
Trump would have you believe that Juan Guaidó is his dog in this Venezuelan fight. Except that, besides barking hollow threats, the United States is supporting Guaidó’s fledgling uprising only with hard cash. And whatever amount it is funneling to him will be a pittance compared with the amount Russia (and China) are using to bribe military leaders to continue supporting Maduro.
Spain has said it will not allow Venezuelan authorities to enter its embassy in Caracas and arrest a leading opposition figure, Leopoldo López.
Mr López sought refuge there on Tuesday after appearing with opposition leader Juan Guaidó to call for a rebellion to oust President Nicolás Maduro.
(BBC, May 3, 2019)
As I argued in “Cry for Venezuela” cited above, the only way Maduro will go is if military leaders decide that local protests are becoming too destabilizing for him to stay. And they will not take cues from political leaders in the United States.
Instead, they might take them from military leaders in Algeria, where local protests recently compelled the military to oust strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika after 20 years; or from military leaders in Sudan, where local protests recently compelled the military to oust strongman Omar al-Bashir after 30 years.
I suggested in that same commentary that, if the United States thinks political pressure and economic sanctions will force Maduro to go, it will be waiting for as long as it waited to see Fidel Castro go. Which brings me to:
Cuban Missile Crisis: the Spin-Off
The analogies are unavoidable, especially given the notorious ways President JFK tried to make Cuban President Fidel Castro go. But nothing defined the way Castro defied and outlasted JFK (his assassination notwithstanding) quite like this missile crisis.
As it happens, I put this Cold-War precedent into context in “Trump – Sent by God to Save the Jews…?” March 26, 2019. The title aside, I had cause to comment on the dim-witting license Trump gave when he allowed Putin to fly military bombers into Venezuela without nary a tweet. This led me to
- note that, instead of standing up to Putin the famous way JFK stood up to Khrushchev, Trump is appeasing him the infamous way Chamberlain appeased Hitler; and
- out chicken-hawk Republicans — who would’ve been squawking their guts out if Obama had allowed Putin to fly bombers into Venezuela without nary a comment.
Unfortunately, no Republican seems the least bit bothered by this rank hypocrisy. Instead, Republican congressman Mario Diaz-Balart is making the Trump administration look even more hapless and confused with this bit of missile symmetry:
Russia has secretly installed nuclear missiles in Venezuela a US politician has sensationally claimed in a chilling echo of the Cuban Missile Crisis. …
Diaz-Balart told Fox News if Maduro stays in power it could be ‘an open door for the Russians and for the Chinese and for others to increase their activity against our national security interest.’
(The Sun, May 1, 2019)
Granted, Diaz-Balart might just be scaremongering for attention. But, even if he’s right, the only thing we might have to fear is fear itself. Here are some of the reasons why:
- The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was so scary because, by deploying nuclear weapons in Cuba, the Soviet Union was attempting not only to gain tactical advantage but to do so in America’s generally recognized sphere of influence.
- The US enjoys considerable tactical advantage today with its forward deployment of weapons in five NATO member states: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. (Arguably, this violates the spirit of the agreement that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis, which required the United States to remove missiles from Turkey and the Soviet Union to remove missiles from Cuba.)
- The wonder is that, before now, Russia never tried to counter the US’s tactical advantage by forward deploying weapons in Cuba or other friendly countries in the Western Hemisphere. If the US objected, it would look like an imperious hypocrite. Besides, as I indicated above, Trump probably knows nothing about spheres of influence and even less about the precedent the Cuban Missile Crisis set.
- The principle of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) will prevent, or certainly limit, any direct confrontation between the United States and Russia, despite what bellicose rhetoric and provocative maneuvers might ensue.
Meanwhile, China has been busy wielding superpower influence throughout this Hemisphere, making a mockery of America’s Monroe Doctrine. This doctrine holds that “intervention by any external power in the politics of the Americas is a potentially hostile act against the United States.”
But China has been doing just that with impunity for years – using its money instead of its military. I refer you to such commentaries as “China Buying Political Dominion Over Caribbean (Latin America and Africa),” February 22, 2005, “China Invading US Sphere of Influence in the Caribbean,” April 11, 2012, and “China Buying the Global Influence Russia and US Fighting For…” October 19, 2016.
I just happened to crystallize much of the geostrategic dynamics afoot in “The Americas: China Encroaching, Migrants Caravanning, US Retreating, CARICOM Flailing, Russia Reclaiming… It’s All a Trumpian Mess!” April 1, 2019.
It’s just that Putin’s interventions tend to be more sensational and destabilizing pursuant to what I call Russia’s Manifest Doctrine. This doctrine holds that sowing discord in the United States and undermining its global influence further Russia’s geostrategic interests.
Exhibit A of course is the aforementioned cyber invasion during the 2016 presidential election. But you can bet Putin is doing all he can to exacerbate the migration crisis at the US-Mexico border.
He knows this could make the discord Castro sowed with the Mariel Boat Lift pale in comparison. Moreover, he knows Trump will blame the Mexicans even if reports show that the coyotes orchestrating the migrant caravans are predominantly Russians.
Alas, all of the above only provides further fodder to assert that Trump is turning the United States into a Banana Republic. Until he came along, nobody could have even imagined a US president fraternizing with and kowtowing to this country’s enemies while challenging and alienating its friends. Yet Trump has been doing this from day one of his presidency.
In his accidental crusade to “Make America Great Again,” he is making a mockery of the founding principles and values that made America great in the first place. He is also making America an international laughingstock. But I fear he will leave behind an America so divided against itself, it won’t even notice China (or even Russia) replacing it as “the indispensable nation.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden is right. Our only hope is that a Democrat defeats Trump so resoundingly in 2020 that his presidency goes down in the annals of history as a black-swan aberration. If that happens, history books will surely show that America rectified and recovered from it with gusto.
Not so coincidentally, I’m already on record declaring Biden as the best presidential candidate to lead this restoration: “Biden-Harris 2020: That’s the Ticket!” January 14, 2019.
cry for Venezuela… Trump finally criticizing Russia… Obama still warning Assad…
Obama in Syria like Bush in Iraq… Syria: mission accomplished?… Syria: don’t bomb, boycott…
Helsinki summit… Trump defies US to parrot Putin… Treasonous Trump Manchurian president…
Trump loves Kim… Julian Assange… Omar al-Bashir… Trump sent by God… China buying political dominion…
China invading US… China buying global influence… The Americas: China, Russia, Venezuela, migration crisis… Biden-Harris 2020…
* This commentary was originally published yesterday, Sunday, at 11:06 a.m.