Don’t Goad Trump Into Starting a War
Fareed Zakaria puts some of the worst habits of foreign policy punditry on display in these comments on Trump and Venezuela. It comes from a video, so I’m transcribing the full text here:
President Trump faces a crucial test of his foreign policy and his resolve over Venezuela. His administration has made absolutely clear that the U.S. no longer considers Nicolas Maduro to be president, a far stronger declaration than the “red line” that Barack Obama drew around Syria’s Assad. So far, Trump’s pressure has not worked. Maduro has dug in and the Venezuelan military has not abandoned its support for him. Now Venezuela is a complicated, divided country, and Maduro, as the heir to Hugo Chavez, does have some support in poor and rural areas. But far more significant in bolstering the regime in Caracas has been Russia’s open and substantial support.
Moscow now admits that it has sent military personnel to Venezuela. Two Russian military planes arrived in the country last weekend carrying about 100 troops. This is just the latest in a series of moves by Moscow to shore up Maduro. Over the last few years, Russia has provided wheat, arms, credit, and cash to the flailing Caracas government. Estimates of Russia’s total investment in Venezuela vary from 20-25 billion dollars. The Venezuelan gambit appears to be personally significant for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. In recent years, as the Venezuelan economy has tanked and political instability has grown, even most Russian companies have abandoned the country, viewing it as too risky. But as Vladimir Rouvinski writes in a Wilson Center Report, Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft, which has close ties to Putin, has persisted and even ramped up its support for Maduro.
In other words, Putin is all in with his support for Maduro. He is doing this in part to prop up an old ally and because it adds to Russia’s clout in global oil markets, but above all because it furthers Putin’s central foreign policy objective: the formation of a global anti-American coalition of countries that can frustrate Washington’s purposes and usher in a more multipolar world. Putin’s efforts seem designed to taunt the United States, which announced the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, warning foreign powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere. The big question for Washington is: will it allow Moscow to make a mockery of another American “red line”? The U.S. and Russia have taken opposing, incompatible stands on this issue, and as with Syria there is a danger that, if Washington does not back its words with deeds, a year from now we will be watching the consolidation of the Maduro regime supported by Russian arms and money. The administration has been tough on Russian involvement in Venezuela. Trump himself has even declared that “Russia has to get out,” but that is an unusual sentiment from Trump, who has almost never criticized Vladimir Putin and often sided with Russia on matters big and small. As former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has written, Trump has a remarkably consistent pattern of supporting Putin’s foreign policy goals. Trump has threatened to withdraw from NATO and has announced the removal of American troops from Syria. He has publicly disagreed with his own intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow meddled with the 2016 election. Now I have never alleged collusion or conspiracy between Russia and Trump, writing merely that we should wait to see what evidence Robert Mueller presented. But the real puzzle remains: why has Trump been unwilling to confront Putin in any way on any issue? And will Venezuela finally be the moment when Trump ends his appeasement?
There are many things profoundly wrong with Zakaria’s statement, and the worst of them is the absurd and unfounded reference to “appeasement” at the end. Appeasement is a term used to insult and vilify in our foreign policy debates, and it is never used to describe anything accurately. To use it in this context is even more ridiculous than usual, because there is nothing that Trump has done as a matter of policy that could possibly be misconstrued as “appeasement.” It is an insult that hawks typically use when they want to agitate for a new war or when they desire to sabotage a negotiation. Since there is negotiation to be sabotaged in this case, we have to assume that Zakaria is trying to get Trump to start a war to prove his “resolve.”
It is simply false to say that Trump has never confronted or opposed Putin on any issue. He authorized sending arms to the Ukrainian government, withdrew the U.S. from the INF Treaty, expressed opposition to New START, presided over the ongoing expansion of NATO, ordered military attacks on the Syrian government twice, and backed an expansion of U.S. missile defense. All of these things are offensive to Russia to one degree or another. Zakaria’s examples are extremely weak, and he doesn’t have very many of them. Trump’s threats of withdrawing from NATO have been meaningless The “removal” of U.S. forces from Syria hasn’t happened, and there will be a residual U.S. military presence in Syria for the foreseeable future. The picture that Zakaria wants to paint of Trump as an “appeaser” is completely at odds with the substance of the unnecessarily hawkish actions that Trump has actually taken.
Zakaria is irresponsibly goading Trump to act recklessly in Venezuela to back up the president’s irresponsible rhetoric, and he is exploiting the anti-Russia hysteria of the last few years to do it. He exaggerates the significance of what Russia is doing and conjures up the specter of a “global anti-American coalition” that doesn’t exist. He grossly misrepresents what the Monroe Doctrine was in order to make it seem as if Russian-Venezuelan military cooperation represents an intolerable violation that must be answered. The Monroe Doctrine was not a warning to other powers to “stay out” of the hemisphere, but was limited only to telling European powers not to threaten the independence of Latin American republics. Russia clearly isn’t threatening Venezuela’s independence or its form of government, and that is what annoys Zakaria. He wrongly presents Venezuela as a showdown with Russia when the real issue is the political crisis among Venezuelans. Notice how there is no mention of the Venezuelan opposition or Juan Guaido anywhere in Zakaria’s remarks. He wants to cast this as another conflict between major powers, and it seems that he thinks that the U.S. needs to make up for whatever he thinks our government should have done in Syria by picking a fight with Russia in another place now. When he claims that Russia is “taunting” the U.S., Zakaria is clearly taunting Trump to do something foolish in order to uphold another stupid “red line.” It is nothing more than mindless do-somethingism with all of the terrible arguments about “credibility” and resolve that we have come to expect from interventionists.