Trump Needs a Geopolitical Victory
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(02 Feb. 2019) — United States President Donald Trump is desperate for a win on the global stage. So far, by all measures, he is a big loser. His chaotic foreign policy, his administration’s lack of any semblance of a geopolitical strategy, has so far been anything but coherent. If we can be so generous as to ascribe a foreign policy framework or an executable strategy to his administration’s conduct of foreign affairs then there would at least be some standard by which the first two years of his administration could be evaluated.
As I have written before, the seemingly powerlessness which characterizes governments in the Western Hemisphere provide an ideal space for Trump to use threats and bluster to realize a geopolitical victory. Venezuela is his first big opportunity. As many governments fall in line for regime change in Venezuela, albeit for different reasons, Trump is on a threshold of the victory he desperately craves. But, what will it look like, and what more will it take before there is regime change and return to stability in Venezuela?
The future of Venezuela is uncertain. The effect of regime change and the path pursued by the Trump administration and the U.S.-led like-minded countries in the region will have lasting effects on the region. Worst yet, should regime change in Venezuela become a precedent for the hemisphere in the 21st Century.
Success for the Trump administration in removing Nicolás Maduro from power will be claimed by the president as a major victory. Regime change in Venezuela could be the change he seeks to switch conversation from the many examples of his geopolitical failures on the global stage.
Trump’s campaign boast that he knew how to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria turned out to be nothing but. He benefited from the coalition partnerships established by President Barack Obama to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria, including the arming and training of the Kurdish forces to recapture ISIS controlled territory. He claimed victory and announced pullout of U.S. forces from Syria leaving thousands of armed ISIS terrorist fighters to reconstitute and continue their fight against the West. The future dangerous threat from ISIS has been confirmed by the US intelligence community. In the same vein the Trump administration by ignoring al-Qaida’s threat has given space to that terrorist group to rebuild and strengthen, in particular through its affiliates, and again pose a significant threat to the U.S. Homeland, allies, and interests abroad.
Warned by President Barack Obama about the dangers of North Korea’s nuclear threat, the master of the “art of the deal” emerged from an ill-advised summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to announce that North Korea would end its nuclear weapons program and destroy its nuclear arsenal. He took a victory lap before North Korea had taken any verifiable step to fulfill that objective. Months later, with Kim failing to fulfill Trump’s fantasy, the U.S. president announced rewarding him with a second summit. He is again being played by Kim; he just doesn’t seem to know it. The US intelligence community contradicts Trump’s characterization of Kim’s nuclear weapons intent and the significant nature of North Korea’s continued nuclear threat to the U.S. and its allies currently and in the future.
Trump’s geopolitical losses continued to mount with the apologist role he assumed following Saudi Arabia’s brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who was a US permanent resident and journalist at the time of his assassination in the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Turkey. Despite the evidence provided by the Turkish government to President Trump that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder, and the explicit confirmation of bin Salman’s role by the U.S. intelligence community, it was business as usual for the Trump Administration with the Saudi Crown Prince and Saudi Arabia. Not for the first time, Trump disparaged the findings of his own intelligence services to support his autocratic friends.
Trump is losing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on several fronts. Most importantly, Trump’s abandonment of the Kurdish forces in Syria gifted Erdogan an opportunity to destroy them – U.S. allies against ISIS. It also gives Turkey the option of occupying Syrian territory under Kurdish control. Abandonment of the Kurds is a betrayal of the alliance between the Kurdish forces and the U.S. military which worked to U.S. advantage in fighting ISIS in Syria. Without the Kurds carrying a disproportionate burden on the battlefield, ISIS would still be in control of vast territories in Iraq and Syria. Trump would not have been able to claim, though falsely, that ISIS was defeated.
Trump’s losses with Russia’s Vladimir Putin have taken on mountainous proportions. Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin during the 2016 presidential election campaign and during the first two years of his presidency leads, overwhelmingly, to the conclusion that Putin possesses personal information on Trump that would be damaging to him. Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections to favor Trump’s campaign and possible collusion with his campaign remain the subject of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
My article “Will Trump fall on the Sanctions Sword?” published over two years ago raised issues about the Trump-Putin relationship and whether Trump would manipulate U.S. sanctions to Putin’s satisfaction. Issues raised in my article then are being played out in real time. Trump has lost on every front with Putin, including with Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Trump’s embrace of some of the world’s worst autocratic regimes has clouded his judgment. He disparages leaders of democratic governments, in particular traditional US allies. Autocratic regimes around the world and in particular autocratic-leaning leaders in the Western hemisphere find solace in, and are encouraged by Trump’s embrace. Autocracy in the hemisphere is linked to a sordid period of history. Making enemies of friends and allies is a losing proposition. On that, Trump is a big loser.
Trump campaigned on building a great Wall on the US border with Mexico, bragging repeatedly that Mexico would pay for it. An illusory delusion, Trump now wants American taxpayers to pay for his wall. That is not happening and shutting down the government to force Democrats to agree ranks among his biggest failures so far.
Trump has lost, and is losing, “bigly” on the domestic front. American voters overwhelmingly rebuked him in the 2018 elections. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is giving him a crash course in Political realism. And, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is closing in on him as his associates fall one by one.
It is in this context that Trump sees an opportunity to claim victory in Venezuela. Aided and abetted by Nicolás Maduro’s gross mismanagement of Venezuela – the economic and political degradation of the Venezuelan people; the denial of fundamental freedoms and due process; and the denial of basic human security and human rights, have given Trump an illusion of looming success.
The question now overshadowing what would be a Pyrrhic victory is what will be left of Venezuela. It seems more likely that regime change in Venezuela may only be possible through widespread violence, more likely a brutal civil war. Stabilizing a post-conflict Venezuela will be quite challenging. A military conflict in Venezuela, purely domestic or externally assisted and/or initiated, will leave the entire hemisphere sharply divided.
Having followed Trump along the path of regime change, the Organization of American States is unlikely to regain respectability, and with limited capacity, to reunite a divided hemisphere. With both Cuba and Nicaragua in Trump’s cross-hairs, he may be emboldened to seek other future “victories” in the hemisphere. Support for Trump’s geopolitical regime change policy in the hemisphere could rapidly evaporate.
© 2019 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post