Darned good question by Jamie Weinstein.
With any modern pre-Trump Republican president — and most, if not all, modern Democratic presidents — the answer would be that the United States sides with popular revolutions against autocrats both as a matter of morality and in the belief that freer peoples make for more stable neighbors. Trump doesn’t care about the morality part, though. Erdogan, Xi, Duterte, Putin: He admires strongmen from every culture and corner on Earth. He’d argue too with the Bushian proposition that freedom means stability, and he wouldn’t be alone. Strongmen keep order. Who knows what a bloody mess would have been made of China if the leadership hadn’t moved to crush the Tiananmen uprising 30 years ago, or what that mess would have meant for American interests. We can sit here and debate all day whether Saddam-era Iraq or post-Saddam Iraq is more “stable.”
The point is, the conventional centrist wisdom on virtuous meddling in foreign affairs has never held much sway with POTUS. So what was he doing earlier today wading into the Venezuela fracas by declaring the country’s opposition leader, Juan Guaido, as its new interim president? If anything, you’d expect Trump to like the cut of Maduro’s jib. He’s kept his boot successfully on the necks of restless Venezuelans for years now. “Strength”! We can work with a man like that.
But here we are. In its own way, his announcement about Guaido is as surprising as his attacks on Bashar Assad in Syria. Maybe more surprising. Assad, after all, is a client of Iran, and antipathy to Iran is a rare foreign-policy view on which POTUS, his staff, and previous administrations seem to align. Slapping Assad was slapping Iran. (Whereas withdrawing from Syria is … back-slapping Iran, I guess.) Also, punishing Assad for using WMDs was a ready opportunity for Trump to package himself as the un-Obama, something he relishes. Obama blinked on enforcing his “red line” on chemical weapons, didn’t he? Well, then, nothing left to do for Trump except to show him up by enforcing it. Straightforward.
Venezuela isn’t as straightforward. Anyone want to spitball a theory as to why Trump weighed in today? I’ll float you three possibilities, which aren’t mutually exclusive.
1. Graham and Rubio got to him. With any other president this would be a stupid explanation. Senators can lobby POTUS on the merits or pitfalls of intervention but he’s going to have his own broad view of that subject. With Trump, though, despite his isolationist tendencies, you really do get the sense at times that he might do his interventionist friends a “favor” now and then by tackling a foreign crisis at their behest, if only as a reward for their loyalty. No doubt Graham and Rubio have been pushing him hard to take Maduro on, having recently been disappointed terribly by his decision to withdraw from Syria. They’ve been loyal soldiers throughout the shutdown, with Graham in particular getting pummeled regularly by leftists for his chumminess with POTUS. Maybe Trump threw them a bone. “Sure, okay. Just for you, as a way to say thanks, I’ll recognize the opposition guy as the new president.”
2. Maduro is the avatar of socialism. One key difference between Maduro and all of the other strongmen cretins whom Trump gets along with is that leftism is at the core of his political identity. Yes, granted, Xi is technically a leftist also, but (a) the line between communism and fascism in modern China is hazy, and more importantly, (b) Xi doesn’t enjoy the sort of cachet in certain precincts of the American left that Chavistas like Maduro do. To put that another way, taking on Maduro is a way of owning the democratic socialists here at home. Speaking of which, some of them are quite unhappy with POTUS’s declaration today:
.@AOC, Trump is effectively declaring a coup in Venezuela, recognizing an unelected rightwing opposition figure as president. You have 2.6M followers and an enormous following on the left. You could have a very positive impact by speaking out against the Trump-led coup. Will you?
— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) January 23, 2019
TONIGHT 6 PM EST: join us in front of the White House in opposition to the US-backed coup against the democratically-elected government of #Venezuela!
We've seen this before in Latin America and it always turns out BAD.https://t.co/cavG5uoQF2
— CODEPINK (@codepink) January 23, 2019
Pressuring Erdogan or Xi is all well and good, pleasing for various reasons to different factions of the American right, but declaring Maduro an illegitimate thug and a failure is a way of declaring socialism writ large illegitimate, thuggish, and doomed to fail — a message with a lot of resonance to right-wingers in the U.S. warily eyeing the Democratic primary and the rise of figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Maduro’s the closest thing the modern right has to Fidel Castro. Whatever one’s feeling about strongmen, the opportunity to whack the famous socialist across the face is irresistible. It’s high-five material for the Fox News audience.
3. He’s worried about a refugee crisis. Venezuela’s not just any country, it’s in South America. If a strongman instigates a crisis in a Middle Eastern country, it’s Europe’s problem. If a strongman in South America instigates a crisis, it’s our problem — or it will be soon enough as Venezuela’s neighbors end up destabilized by refugees entering their countries. As the instability spreads, the risk of South Americans heading north for a better life in the United States increases. And unlike many of the illegal immigrants seeking economic opportunity in the U.S. in the guise of dubious asylum applications, refugees from Venezuela really will have credible persecution claims that will gain them lawful residency. Trump sees that and is simply being proactive in trying to head off a crisis in Venezuela by encouraging locals to rise up and take back their country. Just one question: How does weighing in against Maduro instead of in favor of him achieve that? Go back to the top of this post. The virtue of strongmen in Trump’s eyes is that they’re ruthless about keeping order. Weaken Maduro and you’re risking a civil war that might destabilize the region even more than Maduro clamping down would. From the Trumpian perspective, why not ride to his aid and help him crush his opponents in return for a pledge by him to seal Venezuela’s borders, turning it into a gulag state like North Korea? Remember, to Trump, morality’s no issue.
Which factor best explains his actions today? I think it’s the second but am open to persuasion.