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Inside, confidential and off the record





U.S.: Hard lines

National Museum of American History


Tough talking may help the White House walk tall at home,
but internationally its words are falling flat

It has been a year since US president Donald Trump installed a foreign policy team that in his words shares his thought process. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton indeed share his preference for hardline talk. But just as Trump has demonstrated in domestic politics, unrealistic objectives and poor execution undermine the US' effectiveness in international relations.

This foreign policy team immediately implemented Trump's promise to undo the Iran nuclear deal. But its policy of paring Iran's oil exports to zero through sanctions remains as hard to implement as it seemed at the outset, because of potential repercussions on global oil markets and US consumers. The sanctions threat has cut the number of countries buying Iranian oil to five, but Tehran is hanging on.

The US is now trying a different tack, targeting Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard in a bid to persuade Tehran's economic partners to cut remaining ties. It is also encouraging Israel's newly re-elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to confront Iran, and backs Saudi Arabia's similarly hardline policy. But Trump appears unwilling to contemplate the level of US military engagement that Tehran's confrontation with Washington's Middle East allies may entail.

Closer to home, Trump's boast of military intervention in Venezuela has turned out to be a bluff. The White House has assumed that a combination of economic pressure, intervention threats and support for the opposition would force out President Nicolas Maduro and open the door to a massive and lucrative reconstruction campaign anchored on oil. But Maduro is holding fast, bolstered by paramilitaries and foreign patrons in Havana, Moscow, Beijing, Ankara and now Tehran.

Trump has cast former president Barack Obama as weak and indecisive toward Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But his red lines against Maduro have turned out to be as blurry as Obama's in Syria. In a dark parallel, Venezuela is starting to see the emergence of anti-Maduro paramilitaries. A slide into open conflict may result in Venezuela resembling its neighbour Colombia at the height of its internal strife. A worst-case scenario could leave Venezuela looking like present-day Libya.

Obama's handling of Libya's civil war is another grievance for the White House but it shows no willingness to get involved as the Libyan National Army advances into Tripoli to overthrow the UN and US-backed government. Instead, the US has removed its small military contingent from Libya. "The security realities on the ground are growing increasingly complex and unpredictable," the Pentagon says.

US and them

That may as well describe any area of active US overseas involvement. But Pompeo is telling members of Congress that the State Department has got "its swagger back". He and Bolton frequently invoke the era of former president Ronald Reagan to justify their vision of the US imposing its will on allies, friends and adversaries ignoring the realities of that Cold War period and fundamental changes in international relations over the past 30 years.

Another former president, Theodore Roosevelt, advised to "speak softly and carry a big stick". The White House is turning that on its head by talking tough and exposing constraints on US leverage. Domestically, Trump's social media savvy may mask his missteps. But internationally, actions still speak louder than words.



Argus / April 12, 2019

Original Article

ISSUES.... 04 / 15 / 2019 - Send Us Your Issues

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