President Trump seems to be threatening nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, or he’s bluffing to shame that Kim Jong Un fellow, to make him back off and whimper in submission, in the fetal position. No one knows which it is, but everyone agrees that this won’t go well. This is the only issue at the moment – for good reason. If the United States launches a massive preemptive strike against North Korea, because Donald Trump has had enough mockery from that Kim Jong Un fellow, Seoul will be gone a few hours, North Korean missiles will drop on Tokyo, and the Chinese will jump in too – to keep what’s then left of the Korean peninsula from becoming fully aligned with the United States. No one knows what Russia would do. No one wants to know – but in the end, with millions dead, the United States would become a pariah nation. On the other hand, no one would ever make fun of Donald Trump’s tiny hands ever again. That may be what is driving this.
That’s the worry – Donald Trump’s tiny hands driving world events – but it’s not just North Korea. The week ended with the South American parallel:
President Donald Trump said Friday that he wouldn’t rule out military action against Venezuela in response to the country’s descent into political chaos following President Nicolas Maduro’s power grab.
Speaking to reporters at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, Trump bemoaned the country’s growing humanitarian crisis and declared that all options remain on the table – including a potential military intervention.
“We have many options for Venezuela and by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option,” Trump volunteered, adding, “A military operation and military option is certainly something that we could pursue.”
No one knew what the hell he was talking about. What sort of military operation, with what objective? He didn’t say – but he has a military he can use, somehow. It’s just that this was new to everyone:
Trump’s comment mark a serious escalation in rhetoric for the U.S., which has up until now stressed a regional approach that encourages Latin American allies to escalate pressure on the Maduro regime. Hours before Trump’s comments, a senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity stressed that approach while briefing reporters on Vice President Mike Pence’s upcoming trip to the region later this week.
Mike Pence will just have to change his plans, or at least his talking points, now, but that won’t go well:
Venezuela’s defense minister called Trump’s talk of a military intervention an act of “craziness” and “supreme extremism.”
Gen. Vladimir Padrino, a close ally of Maduro, said “With this extremist elite that’s in charge in the U.S., who knows what will happen to the world?”
The White House later released a statement saying it had rejected a request from Maduro to speak by phone with Trump. The statement said, “Trump will gladly speak with the leader of Venezuela as soon as democracy is restored in that country.”
That’s it, restore democracy or die? It seems that the man so insecure about his tiny hands is frustrated again:
The Trump administration has slapped a series of sanctions against Maduro and more than two dozen current and former Venezuelan officials in response to a crackdown on opposition leaders and the recent election of a constitutional assembly charged with rewriting the country’s constitution.
But even as the list of targeted individuals has grown longer, promised economic sanctions have yet to materialize amid an outcry by U.S. oil companies over the likelihood that a potential ban on petroleum imports from Venezuela – the third-largest supplier to the U.S. – would hurt U.S. jobs and drive up gas costs.
Mike Pence will have to clean this up:
Trump’s comments are sure to focus new attention on Pence’s upcoming six-day tour of the region, which will include stops in Cartagena, Colombia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Santiago, Chile; and Panama City. Pence is set to arrive in Colombia on Sunday and is expected to meet with each of the countries’ leaders, deliver a major speech on U.S.-Latin American relations and tour the newly-expanded Panama canal.
The trip was already sure to be dominated by discussion of Venezuela, with Pence expected to call on the leaders to continue to pressure the Maduro government and encourage others in the region to do the same.
But Trump’s comments are likely to upend the conversations, with leaders potentially pressing Pence for reassurance that Trump won’t go through with his military threat.
Others will have to clean this up too:
Trump’s threat of military intervention in Venezuela also seems to contradict the advice of his top national security adviser. Citing the resentment stirred in Latin America by the long U.S. history of military interventions in the region, General H.R. McMaster said he didn’t want to give Maduro any ammunition to blame the “Yankees” for the “tragedy” that has befallen the oil-rich nation.
“You’ve seen Maduro have some lame attempts to try to do that already,” McMaster said in an interview that aired last Saturday on MSNBC.
Rather than send in the Marines, McMaster said it was important for the U.S. and its neighbors to speak with a single voice in defense of Venezuela’s democracy.
What was McMaster saying, don’t pay attention to this president we have up here? It may be too late for that:
In eastern Caracas, the center of months of deadly anti-government protests, residents reacted with a mix of disbelief and frustration with Trump’s remarks, which they fear will embolden the weakened Maduro and distract attention from his abuses.
“Of course we don’t support violence, but look at all the violence we’re already suffering,” said Irali Medina, an office administrator, pointing to the spot where a university student was killed recently by a tear gas canister fired by national guardsmen controlling protesters.
In short, don’t send in the Marines, but there was that late July election:
The legitimacy of Sunday’s election to overhaul Venezuela’s Constitution was under threat as many voters avoided the ballot box, nations across the region rejected the predetermined result and the streets erupted in the deadliest day of unrest in three months.
President Nicolás Maduro had ordered a rewriting of the Constitution. The election on Sunday was simply to pick the members of the constituent assembly that will carry it out; there was no option to reject the process.
By evening, electoral officials announced the winners of the vote, a list of leftist stalwarts including Diosdado Cabello, a powerful politician who once participated in a failed coup attempt, and Cilia Flores, Mr. Maduro’s wife. The result effectively liquidates the Venezuelan political opposition and leaves the left with complete control over a country that remains deeply divided.
That’s the end of democracy, and Josh Keating covered the following morning:
It’s hard not to notice that the Trump administration is a bit selective when it decides to care about human rights and democratic norms: Leftist authoritarian governments in Cuba and Venezuela get sanctioned; authoritarian governments in the Middle East get arms deals.
At a press conference Monday, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was asked by a reporter why Maduro is so much worse than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who received a personal congratulatory phone call from Trump after his own controversial referendum in April.
McMaster responded that “one difference is that you see the end of the constitution in Venezuela,” before comparing Maduro to Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong-un, and Bashar al-Assad. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given that what Erdogan did, arresting his political opponents and holding a disputed election to amend the constitution to grant himself broad powers, is pretty comparable to what Maduro is being sanctioned for.
That rigged Turkish referendum ended democracy too. The legislature became “advisory” to Erdogan. Erdogan now decides what the laws are. The courts became “advisory” to Erdogan. Erdogan now decides what’s constitutional. A lot of journalists are now in jail. Erdogan has banned the teaching of evolution in their schools. Erdogan received a personal congratulatory phone call from Trump. Trump was impressed. End democracy by going far right and you’re a hero. End democracy by going far left and we’ll send in the Marines.
There are alternatives to sending in the Marines. Nations can advance their geopolitical interests with the use of something as mundane as money:
Venezuela’s unraveling socialist government is increasingly turning to ally Russia for the cash and credit it needs to survive – and offering prized state-owned oil assets in return, sources familiar with the negotiations told Reuters.
As Caracas struggles to contain an economic meltdown and violent street protests, Moscow is using its position as Venezuela’s lender of last resort to gain more control over the OPEC nation’s crude reserves, the largest in the world.
No shots were fired:
Venezuela’s state-owned oil firm, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), has been secretly negotiating since at least early this year with Russia’s biggest state-owned oil company, Rosneft – offering ownership interests in up to nine of Venezuela’s most productive petroleum projects, according to a top Venezuelan government official and two industry sources familiar with the talks.
Moscow has substantial leverage in the negotiations: Cash from Russia and Rosneft has been crucial in helping the financially strapped government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro avoid a sovereign debt default or a political coup.
Rosneft delivered Venezuela’s state-owned firm more than $1 billion in April alone in exchange for a promise of oil shipments later. On at least two occasions, the Venezuelan government has used Russian cash to avoid imminent defaults on payments to bondholders, a high-level PDVSA official told Reuters.
Rosneft has also positioned itself as a middleman in sales of Venezuelan oil to customers worldwide. Much of it ends up at refineries in the United States – despite U.S. sanctions against Russia – because it is sold through intermediaries such as oil trading firms.
Russia just won a war over Venezuela we hadn’t even begun yet – without firing a shot.
That seems to be happening a lot. There are alternatives to sending in the Marines. The Los Angeles Times has published a series of items on how we have already lost Africa:
Although StarTimes – a privately owned, Beijing-based media and telecommunications firm – is virtually unknown in the West, it has been sweeping across Africa since 2002, overhauling the continent’s broadcast infrastructure and beaming Chinese content into millions of homes. It has subsidiaries in 30 African countries, including such war-torn states as the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
“Our aim is to enable every African household to afford digital TV, watch good digital TV and enjoy the digital life,” StarTimes Vice Chairman Guo Ziqi told China’s official New China News Agency in December.
But there’s a catch. StarTimes has substantial backing from the Chinese state – and an explicit political mandate.
This is their alternative to sending in their Marines:
China’s relationship with Africa – for decades defined by resource-for-infrastructure deals – is evolving, as Africa becomes wealthier and China’s foreign policy objectives grow more ambitious.
Beijing has invested billions of dollars into “soft power” campaigns aimed at convincing the world that China is a cultural and political success story…
StarTimes signals a change in tack, one that highlights the depth and complexity of Beijing’s efforts to win hearts and minds – with much of that effort now being directed at Africa, one of the world’s great emerging media markets.
Of course there’s a bit of trouble here and there:
China’s footprint across Kenya spreads far beyond access to the airwaves. As in the rest of Africa, China has been investing heavily in infrastructure. But as China’s impact deepens, Kenyans have often reacted with suspicion. They blame China for stealing local jobs. They fear that China – Kenya’s largest creditor – is saddling the country with unmanageable debt, and that Chinese infrastructure projects are endangering the country’s pristine national parks, some of the world’s most biodiverse.
In late May, a Kenyan delegation signed a $2-billion deal with a Chinese firm for a 1,050-megawatt coal-fired power plant about 13 miles north of Lamu Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa. Critics say the project could pollute the air, damage fishing grounds and push hundreds of residents off their land. Locals were outraged that the Chinese company, China Power Global, would import 40% of workers on the project from China.
No war, even a “soft” war, goes smoothly, but meanwhile, elsewhere, there is this:
Africa’s past is the mildewed train station in central Addis Ababa, where locomotives sit gutted and rusted tracks vanish in the grass. The line was once the greatest in Africa; built by France in the 1910s, it ran more than 450 miles northeast to neighboring Djibouti, where the desert meets the sea.
Africa’s future is the new station a short drive away, a yellow-and-white edifice with grand pilasters, arched windows and a broad flagstone square. It’s connected to a $4-billion, 470-mile-long rail line, the first electrified cross-border rail system in Africa.
The new rail network was built by China’s state-owned rail and construction firms, which were eager to promote their investment in Africa’s future. Red banners running down the towering facade of the new train station declare, in bold Chinese characters, “Long live Sino-African friendship.”
We’re losing this war too:
China has described its railroad adventures in Africa as an exercise in altruism. Yet for China, investing in Ethiopia – one of the world’s poorest countries – is more strategic than philanthropic. With U.S. engagement on the continent at a low ebb, economically and politically, China sees an opportunity to improve transportation through the Horn of Africa and make itself the dominant economic partner on a continent that is about to see an explosion of new cheap labor, cellphone users and urban consumers.
For several decades, China’s African investments were aimed primarily at creating political allies across the continent. Beijing invested heavily in hearts-and-minds projects such as soccer stadiums and hospitals. But a significant change is underway. China now sees Africa as an important economic opportunity. It has been pouring money into infrastructure across the continent, and this week it opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti.
That’s not us:
The Chinese march through Africa has come as U.S. engagement on the continent has been dialed down to its lowest level in years. President Trump has barely mentioned Africa in his public statements, and his “America first” rhetoric, some Africa experts say, is pushing the continent further into China’s embrace.
The rhetoric has shifted:
“My vision is, by 2020, Ethiopia’s economy will be among the world’s mid-level economies,” said Mekonnen Getachew, a project manager at the Ethiopian Railways Corp., which oversees the rail line. “The rail will make every economic activity easier. Our economy will boom. This railway is making Ethiopia great again!”
Yes, he said those words:
Western companies have often been reluctant to participate in African infrastructure projects for fear of overwhelming maintenance costs. In many cases, they could simply build new projects more cheaply.
“Americans still see Africa as a place where there are a lot of presidents for life, wars and famines,” said Reuben Brigety, dean at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to the African Union. “They don’t understand what’s happening on the continent economically and demographically.”
In Ethiopia, the country’s rail executives said China seems more attuned to Africa’s needs.
“China doesn’t give simple aid,” Getachew said. “They do give loans. You work, and you return back. That’s a good policy. Aid is just making slavery.”
Nations can advance their geopolitical interests other ways:
Here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, China is driving an urban renaissance. It has built whole neighborhoods, a $475-million light-railway system and even the African Union headquarters, a $200-million complex that dominates the city’s skyline. In the country’s hinterlands, it has constructed several industrial parks, anticipating a manufacturing boom…
China stands to gain tremendously from its investments. Chinese businesses, hampered by slowing growth at home, are increasingly treating the continent as a major overseas market.
In Beijing, the political will driving such projects extends to the top. Through the “Belt and Road Initiative,” launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013, China is funding $1 trillion of infrastructure and trade projects throughout Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
We spent more than twice that amount on building a new Iraq through a war and a long occupation. There were alternatives, and consider this:
In a Chinese-built industrial park along the new rail line, in a Chinese-run factory, thousands of employees of Huajian Shoe Co. – all of them Ethiopian – work 13-hour days gluing, inspecting and boxing women’s shoes. Above them hang propaganda posters in Chinese, English and Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language, imploring workers to “win honor for the country” and to “absolutely obey.”
Zhang Huarong, the company’s chief executive, wandered through the immaculate rows of workers on an inspection tour, a crowd of subordinates trailing behind him. “Africa is too poor,” he said. “It needs entrepreneurs like me to balance out the global economy, so that more people can live a happy life.”
Zhang was proud of his Ethiopian investments. The new rail will knock shipping prices from $5,000 per container to $3,000, he said. And for the cost of one Chinese worker, Zhang can hire five Ethiopians. He plans to employ 50,000 within eight years.
They won’t be joining ISIS either, and there’s this:
Every pair of shoes produced in Huajian’s factories, in China and Ethiopia, is exported to the U.S.; its clients include the labels Tommy Hilfiger, Guess and Lucky.
As the sun set at the factory, about a dozen Ethiopian workers lined up in formation, closing out the workday. An Ethiopian manager waved his arms, as if conducting a choir, and together they sang a Chinese military anthem from the 1950s.
“Unity is strength. Unity is strength,” they sang in Mandarin. “Open fire on the fascists. Bring death to all nondemocratic systems.”
Okay, we lost the war for Africa too, that we hadn’t even begun yet, but consider the budget Trump proposed in March:
President Donald Trump’s vow to put “America first” includes a plan to drastically cut assistance to developing countries and merge the State Department with USAID, according to an internal budget document and sources.
The administration’s March budget proposal vowed to slash aid to developing countries by over one-third, but contained few details. According to a detailed 15-page State Department budget document obtained by Foreign Policy, the overhaul also includes rechanneling funding from development assistance into a program that is tied closely to national security objectives.
Such a move would not be unprecedented. In 1999, the U.S. Information Agency, which funded information and cultural programs abroad, was closed down and many of its programs folded in the State Department. But shutting down, or even just scaling back, an agency dedicated to issues like disease prevention and food security could prove far more polarizing.
“That will end the technical expertise of USAID, and in my view, it will be an unmitigated disaster for the longer term,” said Andrew Natsios, the former USAID Administrator under President George W. Bush. “I predict we will pay the price. We will pay the price for the poorly thought out and ill-considered organization changes that we’re making, and for cuts in spending as well.”
The idea was to be very un-Chinese about this:
Senior USAID officials have told staff that the agency is attempting to cope with the steep cuts by prioritizing its field offices abroad over its offices in Washington. Nonetheless, the agency still anticipates that the budget proposal will necessitate eliminating 30 to 35 of its field missions while cutting its regional bureaus by roughly 65 percent. USAID currently operates in about 100 countries.
“What you’re basically doing is eviscerating the most important tool of American influence in the developing world, which is our development program,” said Natsios. “I don’t think they understand what the role of USAID is, what USAID’s mission directors are. USAID’s mission directors are among the most influential foreigners in the country.”
In addition to closing missions, global health funding is also targeted, with 41 countries facing cuts. While the Trump budget has committed to maintaining funding for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the U.S. initiative that combats HIV/AIDS internationally, the State Department’s budget indicates that health programs abroad are set to take an approximately 25 percent hit in funding.
This is not a way to win hearts and minds:
“I’ve seen firsthand how U.S. development money saves millions of lives” said Tom Kenyon, the CEO of Project Hope, a global health nonprofit. “There’s just no question people would die from this.”
The administration’s cut to global health funding could also put Americans at risk in the event of a major epidemic…
Other programs and offices that are on the chopping block include the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership.
Maybe we’ll send in the Marines instead, after we nuke North Korea. Russia won Venezuela. China won Africa. Maybe we’re now doing this all wrong. Someone tell the president.
No, he won’t listen, and he’s a bit sensitive about those tiny hands.