Simon Tisdall – The Guardian
With no sensible advisers left by his side, Trump’s threats to the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, could spark a disastrous conflict
Donald Trump’s implicit threat of direct US military intervention in Venezuela is a high-risk gamble that could backfire calamitously. By publicly and aggressively backing the opposition’s bid to supplant him, Trump has presented Nicolás Maduro, the country’s incumbent president, with a very personal, existential challenge.
If Maduro reacts, as he has in the past, by using violence to suppress his opponents, or if he arrests US diplomats who ignore his order to leave the country, Trump may face a daunting choice between rapid escalation, including possibly sending in US forces, and a humiliating climbdown.
It seems clear that Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader, has the backing of many if not most Venezuelans. Less evident, so far, is whether military chiefs and key army units will uphold his self-declared alternative presidency. Given the history of disastrous US interventions in Latin America, Maduro’s denunciation of a coup by the “gringo empire” carries considerable weight.
Then there is the added complication of strong Russian and Chinese support for the current regime. Moscow has condemned the attempted takeover. Maduro was feted in Beijing last autumn, where he was offered a financial bailout.
If the military stays broadly loyal to Maduro, Trump and his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, who has led the charge for regime change in Caracas, will have failed to meet the first, elementary requirement for successful coup-making: ensure the guys with the guns are on your side.
Maybe this is no surprise. Going off half-cock in crucial matters of foreign policy and international relations is a familiar characteristic of the Trump administration. Trump himself is demonstrably clueless about such matters. And after a wave of high-level sackings and resignations during his first two years in office, he badly lacks experienced, politically savvy and level-headed advisers. That dangerous weakness may be about to be exposed.
Much has been written about the so-called “adults in the room” who have supposedly restrained Trump’s worst instincts and puerile tantrums – or did so, at least, until they were fired. Less attention has been paid to the third-raters, chancers and nobodies who have replaced them in the most senior US government positions.
The fact Trump sought help to break the government shutdown stalemate from his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a political greenhorn, showed the dearth of seasoned domestic policy talent in the White House.
Trump’s replacement foreign policy crew likewise shares a startling ignorance of the world beyond America. Their views and prejudices are likely to have seriously negative impacts during Trump’s remaining time in the White House. As one US commentator put it, “Lincoln had a team of rivals; Trump has a team of morons”.
The contention that Trump really has been reined in, until now, by wiser, more experienced advisers is itself questionable. For example, James Mattis, his former defence secretary, failed to prevent Trump’s serial assaults on Nato or his rash decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. To be fair, Mattis did stamp on some wilder Trump wheezes (those that we know about), such as his reported wish to assassinate Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Yet the Venezuela intervention suggests similar or worse decision-making may now be in the offing as an ever angrier, more volatile Trump, besieged by a hostile Congress and noisy talk of impeachment, furtively schemes and plots to salvage a second term.
The more Trump is tempted to lash out, make a splash, or opportunistically create a diversion to wrest back control of the agenda – which is how he may view Venezuela – the more calm, sensible advice will be required. Yet this is what is signally lacking in an administration peopled not by the “best and the brightest” – David Halberstam’s famous, semi-ironic term for John F Kennedy’s White House team – but by the worst and the dumbest with no reputation to lose.
Bolton is the scariest of the bunch – a terrier-like zealot who seizes on an issue and worries it to death, impervious to facts or reason. He acted thus over Iraq, urging George W Bush to invade on what wiser heads knew were bogus grounds.
Bolton is repeating the mistake over Iran, where he has previously advocated forcible regime change regardless of the consequences. Once again, a supposed WMD threat is being exaggerated and conflated with insincere concerns about democracy and human rights.
Bolton’s Iran obsession produced a massive overreaction to two minor incidents involving Tehran-backed militias in Iraq last autumn, when the National Security Council demanded the Pentagon provide immediate options for military strikes on Iran. “People were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were,” a senior official said.
Hopes that diplomacy might curb reckless White House tendencies have evaporated under the sacked Rex Tillerson’s state department successor, Mike Pompeo. Recent speeches by the hawkish former CIA director in Brussels and Cairo exhibited slavish subservience to his master’s voice, echoing Trump’s tunnel-vision nationalism and simplistic division of the world into friends and foes.
Pompeo’s statement on Wednesday evening instructing US diplomats in Caracas to ignore Maduro’s order to leave the country was especially rash. The diplomats could become virtual hostages in any prolonged internal power struggle.
Those searching for more able leadership elsewhere in the higher echelons of Trump-land will search in vain. The Pentagon, the world’s largest, nuclear-armed, war-fighting machine, is currently run by an obscure former Boeing executive, Patrick Shanahan, who, in contrast to Mattis, has zero military or policymaking experience. Not a good situation when a crisis such as Venezuela breaks.
Trump’s incoming attorney-general, William Barr, seems to think his legal duty is to unquestioningly do whatever Trump tells him. Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, hates the press. And his White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, is a temp who once described his new boss as a “terrible human being”.
Even if Trump and his ship of fools and knaves do not start a war in Venezuela, they could just as easily trigger new conflicts in the Middle East or with China, without even meaning to. And Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó should be aware – these people do not make reliable allies. With Trump’s “team of morons” in charge, there is no safety net, no room for error – and no telling what happens next.
- Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator