Watching the World Cup match between England and Colombia yesterday, in which eight yellow cards were issued for brutal fouls, I remarked to my eight-year old son that the two sides really did not like each other and that I was somewhat surprised by the clear hostility of the Colombian team (which received six of the warnings) and of their fans. I said that I’d expect Colombia to feel this way about America but it was Argentina that held a major beef with the English.
Having opened my mouth, I was then obligated to explain the history of American intervention in Latin America and of the Falklands War. And however imperfect my retelling of history may have been, I could at least give a passable explanation because I have passable understanding of history and the way it carries forward to the present to explain the behavior we see in the world. I think it’s reasonable to expect that a president of the United States have a similar degree of knowledge, and that has indeed been the case until the dawning of the 21st Century.
George W. Bush was famously and catastrophically incurious and ignorant about the world—a fault made all the less forgivable for the fact that his father had served as the ambassador to the United Nations, as an envoy to China, as the director of the CIA, as vice-president with a national security portfolio, and as president during the collapse of the USSR. What he knew about Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq could have fit on a postcard, yet he ordered the invasion of two of those countries and labeled three of them the “Axis-of-Evil.”
Still, he knew much more about world affairs than Donald Trump, and he also was self-aware of his own ignorance.
Donald Trump clearly doesn’t care what other countries think of the USA, but he also doesn’t know what they think or why. This has been clear for a while but we now have another appalling demonstration. It starts with a simple question:
As a meeting last August in the Oval Office to discuss sanctions on Venezuela was concluding, President Donald Trump turned to his top aides and asked an unsettling question: With a fast unraveling Venezuela threatening regional security, why can’t the U.S. just simply invade the troubled country?
The suggestion stunned those present at the meeting, including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, both of whom have since left the administration.
Of course, the United States could invade Venezuela if it wanted to, just as it invaded the Dominican Republic, Cuba (Bay of Pigs), Grenada, and Panama within the lifetime of our president. There are diplomatic reasons why that would not be a great idea in our present circumstances. To put it plainly, American interventionism in Latin America is almost universally resented in the region and no politician would lightly invite our troops to come back in, even to deal with a troublesome neighbor. In response to his initial query, this was explained to the president.
In an exchange that lasted around five minutes, McMaster and others took turns explaining to Trump how military action could backfire and risk losing hard-won support among Latin American governments to punish President Nicolas Maduro for taking Venezuela down the path of dictatorship, according to the official. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.
But Trump pushed back. Although he gave no indication he was about to order up military plans, he pointed to what he considered past cases of successful gunboat diplomacy in the region, according to the official, like the invasions of Panama and Grenada in the 1980s.
The idea, despite his aides’ best attempts to shoot it down, would nonetheless persist in the president’s head.
In fact, the president could not help himself and the very next day he mused about an invasion in public. He called it “a military option.” This backfired immediately:
For Maduro, who has long claimed that the U.S. has military designs on Venezuela and its vast oil reserves, Trump’s bellicose talk provided the unpopular leader with an immediate if short-lived boost as he was trying to escape blame for widespread food shortages and hyperinflation. Within days of the president’s talk of a military option, Maduro filled the streets of Caracas with loyalists to condemn “Emperor” Trump’s belligerence, ordered up nationwide military exercises and threatened with arrest opponents he said were plotting his overthrow with the U.S.
“Mind your own business and solve your own problems, Mr. Trump!” thundered Nicolas Maduro, the president’s son, at the government-stacked constituent assembly. “If Venezuela were attacked, the rifles will arrive in New York, Mr. Trump,” the younger Maduro said. “We will take the White House.”
Even some of the staunchest U.S. allies were begrudgingly forced to side with Maduro in condemning Trump’s saber rattling. Santos, a big backer of U.S. attempts to isolate Maduro, said an invasion would have zero support in the region.
But Trump could not be convinced that the other leaders in the region would not welcome an American invasion of Venezuela.
Then in September, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Trump discussed it again, this time at greater length, in a private dinner with leaders from four Latin American allies that included Santos, the same three people said and Politico reported in February.
The U.S. official said Trump was specifically briefed not to raise the issue and told it wouldn’t play well, but the first thing the president said at the dinner was, “My staff told me not to say this.” Trump then went around asking each leader if they were sure they didn’t want a military solution, according to the official, who added that each leader told Trump in clear terms they were sure.
When even this clear rejection was still not enough, Trump’s then National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster eventually had to “pull aside the president and walk him through the dangers of an invasion.”
Whenever you are pondering the advisability of an invasion, military considerations are obviously the foremost concern. You want to know what resources will be required, how many casualties you’ll likely suffer, and what you’re supposed to do once you win and become responsible for law and order and the basic needs of the conquered people. George W. Bush forgot to worry about the last part with consequences that are still costing tens of thousands of people their lives each year.
But if you look at the broader picture of what you’re trying to accomplish, diplomacy becomes paramount. If regional powers encourage and support your effort, the military part may be easier to accomplish, but without their support the political and humanitarian parts will be imperiled. If important leaders in the region, including allies, do not support the invasion, that should be a giant blinking stop sign.
A prepared president would not need to be told the basic political dynamics of Latin America, the Middle East, or any other major region of the world. And if they were told by experts in those fields, they would listen.
Bush’s ignorance and staffing decisions made him susceptible to ideologues who were willing to buck the consensus of experts in the furtherance of grandiose, unrealistic, and reckless plans. Trump runs the exact same risks, but he’s more dangerous because he thinks he understands the world but he knows absolutely nothing.
In particular, he has absolutely no feel for how other nations think about the United States. He doesn’t know how South Korea feels about North Korea or Japan, or what it meant to tear up the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He doesn’t know why the Russians were so interested in the success of Brexit, although he certainly jumped in with both feet to lend a hand. He doesn’t understand why the European Union wanted to strengthen their economic relationship with Ukraine or why they so strongly object to the annexation of Crimea. He doesn’t know why the Assad regime is opposed by ISIS or why the Turks don’t want us using the Kurds as proxies in the region. He doesn’t know why the Saudis are so angry with Qatar or that we depend on Qatar for our most important military base in the Middle East.
The general pattern has been so disastrous that it appears to all the world like Trump is deliberately following a Russian-inspired plot to alienate America from its allies, weaken NATO, tear apart the European Union, and drive our troops out of both the Far East and the Middle East. More than anything else, it seems this way because almost all the “errors” are pointed in the same direction of undermining Russia’s adversaries.
But it has to be admitted that Trump routinely makes mistakes that are rooted in his own magical thinking and ignorance. His “wall” with Mexico is one example, while his trade war is another. These actions may please Russia but they’re equally explainable by Trump’s racist and superficial understanding of how things actually work.
All I know for certain is that it’s a problem that my eight-year old has an easier time understanding the fraught history of U.S.-Latin America relations than our president, and if France meets England in the World Cup final, he’ll want to know all about the long and tense relationship between those two countries.
Our president will not.