A president’s words matter. They have consequences. Markets rise and fall. Careers are made or crushed. Guns are drawn or holstered. Hopes are raised or dashed. History is made or rewritten.
The president’s language is a very big deal.
President Trump’s language, unfortunately, is too often careless, slipshod and even reckless. Leon Panetta says Trump is guilty of “loose talk.” It usually happens when Trump ad-libs, goes off script and makes asides.
I suspect that’s what happened last week when he was asked about Venezuela. “We have many options for Venezuela,” Trump said, “including a possible military option if necessary.”
Whoa! Possible military action in Venezuela? Did he really say such an idiotic thing?
Yes, he did — in his casual, off-hand improvisational speaking style that is the verbal equivalent of his tweets. It was one the most boneheaded remarks Trump has made during his presidency, although there are plenty of other contenders. Like “fire and fury,” “locked and loaded,” or “many, many others.” Of course, this is the White House that marked Holocaust Remembrance Day without once referring to the 6 million Jews who were murdered.
But back to Venezuela. Why is Trump’s remark so wrong? Let me count the ways. First, there are no U.S. interests at stake in Venezuela that would warrant U.S. troops. Oil? We’ve got plenty and don’t need theirs, although Gulf Coast refineries would suffer. Second, threatening military force plays right into President Nicolás Maduro’s hands, casting him as a doughty leader willing to stand up to the Yankee imperialists. You can almost hear Maduro saying, “Mira, compañeros, Donald Trump doesn’t respect our Bolivarian sovereignty and wants to send in troops. We must unite!” Some Venezuelans, even those who can’t get toothpaste and toilet paper, would back him.
Then there’s the ripple effect. Just raising the possibility of sending U.S. troops into Venezuela sends a shiver down the spine of every country in Latin America. Many know first hand what it’s like to have U.S. troops on their soil. We invaded Grenada to show the Cubans a thing or two. We sent troops into Panama to capture Gen. Noreiga. U.S. Marines occupied Haiti for nearly 20 years (1915-1934) and were sent back to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 2004. U.S. troops restored order in the Dominican Republic in 1965. The CIA engineered a coup in Guatemala and had something to do with the downfall of Salvador Allende in Chile. The prime example, of course, is our six-decade battle with Cuba, which includes a nuclear missile crisis, the embargo, and several attempts to kill Fidel Castro. Latin America is well aware of all that history, even if Donald J. Trump is not.
The timing of his remarks could not have been worse. Vice President Pence is touring four South American nations and undoubtedly hard-pressed to explain that his boss didn’t mean what he said. Just last week, ministers from 17 Latin American countries got together in Lima and signed a statement denouncing the Maduro regime for destroying democracy in Venezuela.
Peru’s foreign minister even used the “D” word referring to Maduro — D as in dictator — the very word used by President Trump. He and those Latin American ministers were, briefly, on the same page. But that togetherness evaporated in the blink of an errant phrase: “military option.” It’s not a viable option, and the words should never have been uttered.
Surely there’s someone at the White House — maybe Chief of Staff John Kelly who used to run Southcom and knows Latin America well — who could take Trump aside and school him in the basics of U.S. adventurism in Latin America.
We don’t want an anti-democratic, Cuban-style rogue state in the Western Hemisphere that could infect its neighbors, and Venezuela is well on its way to becoming one. But the problems in Venezuela must be solved by Venezuelans and their neighbors, with judicious U.S. help. But not by U.S. troops.