A forlorn bit of foreign policy


US President Donald Trump has a stunning record for hyperbole and apparently shooting from the mouth, speaking, or more usually tweeting first and then, perhaps, thinking later. Yet this controversial leader has established a pattern of action which is hard for his political enemies, who are many, to tackle. Basically Trump is proud to boast that he doesn’t “do” politics. He presents himself as the antithesis of a seasoned politician. He is rather a businessman who has found his way into the White House and is running the United States as an old style, no-nonsense corporate mogul from the days before Political Correctness was invented.

But while Trump himself seems to get away with his behavior, those members of his revolving administration who try the same approach can come unstuck. On Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched a protest against the appearance of two long-range Russian bombers in Venezuela. Echoing his master’s voice, or rather his keypad, Pompeo wrote on Twitter, “Russia’s government has sent bombers halfway around the world to Venezuela. The Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer”.

This was clearly partly motivated by the presence of Moscow’s nuclear-armed warplanes relatively close to the United States. But Pompeo also saw the chance to bracket the incompetent and failing left-wing government of Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, dominated as it is by oligarchs who are close to the Kremlin.

In terms of both language and geopolitics, this was a mistake. And it was also deeply hypocritical. US warplanes have visited Ukraine in a gesture of Washington’s support for the embattled and corrupt government in Kiev. Moscow very understandably argued this was every bit as provocative as US attempts to establish a military base in Georgia on Russia’s southern border, its mooted expansion of NATO by making Ukraine and Georgia members and its European missile shield, purportedly to protect against Iranian rocketry.

Pompeo’s tweet enabled the Kremlin to sound positively statesmanlike when it responded that it was “completely inappropriate”. Russia’s friendship with Venezuela is longstanding. Moscow sent bombers and a missile cruiser to Venezuela in 2008 and its bombers returned for “joint maneuvers” in 2013. There is no more significance to these visits than to the appearance of foreign warships from the likes of the US, Russia, China, India or European navies on courtesy calls at ports around the world. It is called “showing the flag” and the American military are probably the most eager to do it.

Had Pompeo wished to make a good point, he could have wondered why the Kremlin was not seeking to give substantial economic support to the beleaguered Maduro regime. He could also have speculated that Moscow had not opened its checkbook because it can see as well as anyone else that unless Maduro abandons his financially illiterate policies, his country’s finances amount to a bottomless pit. No amount of outside assistance will fill it.

Instead, Washington’s leading diplomat chose to go for the cheap shot and in doing so belittled himself and very probably embarrassed the professionals in the State Department. This was an exercise in forlorn policy not foreign policy.