Is there still a crisis in Venezuela? Judging from President Donald Trump, you wouldn’t think so. Back in January, the president and his top aides were seized with the cause of ousting the corrupt and autocratic regime in Caracas. The White House delivered what it thought would be a decisive blow by blocking U.S. purchases of Venezuelan oil and hinted that a military intervention was under consideration.
Five months later, President Nicolas Maduro is still in office — and U.S. policy is dormant. There has been no intervention, and after a couple of failed attempts to force the regime’s collapse, the Venezuelan opposition has gone back to negotiating with Maduro, with the help of Latin American and European governments.
The United States is not participating. Instead, The Washington Post reported last month, Trump had taken to “complaining he was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman.”
This month, the president picked a new target, Mexico, which he showered with threats of tariffs and demands that it instantly shut down the flow of migrants and drugs across the border, before accepting a cosmetic settlement.
Before Mexico was Iran, with which Trump appeared ready to go to war in early May if it did not completely reverse its foreign policy. And before that was North Korea, which Trump first threatened with “fire and fury” and then heaped with “love” in a similarly ineffectual attempt to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
There is a pattern here. Trump targets a foreign adversary. He makes a maximalist demand: change your regime; disarm completely; “immediately stop the flow of people and drugs.”
Shunning coordination with allies or Congress, he adopts dramatic measures that he supposes will quickly force a result: oil embargoes, tariffs, threats of military action.
Then, when it turns out that it is, in the real world, not so easy to oust a Latin American dictator, strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons or force Iran to abandon its regional ambitions, he retreats — or moves on to the next target.
What’s left behind is a string of foreign policy bankruptcies, much like the serial real estate failures that used to be Trump’s detritus. A small army of State Department special envoys is struggling to clean up messes; in addition to North Korea, Venezuela and Iran, they can be found in Afghanistan and Syria.
Trump, meanwhile, projects equanimity. North Korea is back to launching missiles? The president is not “personally” bothered.”
Military action against Iran? “I’d rather not,” Trump now says, weeks after moving to block all Iranian oil sales, dispatching fresh forces to the Persian Gulf and warning Tehran to “never threaten the United States again” because “that will be the official end of Iran.”
As for Venezuela, crickets — except for a random Trump tweet last week saying that “Russia has informed us that they have removed most of their people from Venezuela” — a claim that was quickly proved to be untrue.
Perhaps we should all be grateful for Trump’s inconstancy. After all, a U.S. invasion of Venezuela or war with North Korea or Iran would be a catastrophe. Instead, we merely have a series of embarrassments that erodes U.S. credibility and plays into the hands of more competent adversaries such as Russia and China.
The problem is that several of the crises Trump has walked away from contain ticking bombs. Maybe Trump will get lucky and these bombs will defuse themselves. Maduro may be ousted by his generals or eased out by Latin American and European diplomats. Rather than trigger a crisis, Iran and North Korea may decide to wait to see if Trump loses his re-election bid.
What surely won’t happen is the realization of Trump’s far-reaching aims through his formula of bluster, bully and forget. Tackling problems as tough as North Korea and the Mexican border requires a complex strategy and a patient approach. This president is capable of neither.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor with The Washington Post.