Trump Once Again Reveals His Horrible Foreign Policy Instincts

Donald Trump had to be talked down from considering military intervention in Venezuela.

The Associated Press is reporting that President Trump has apparently pressed his aides about military intervention in Venezuela that would be designed to bring down the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro:

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — As a meeting last August in the Oval Office to discuss sanctions on Venezuela was concluding, President Donald Trump turned to his top aides and asked an unsettling question: With a fast unraveling Venezuela threatening regional security, why can’t the U.S. just simply invade the troubled country?

The suggestion stunned those present at the meeting, including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, both of whom have since left the administration. This account of the previously undisclosed conversation comes from a senior administration official familiar with what was said.

In an exchange that lasted around five minutes, McMaster and others took turns explaining to Trump how military action could backfire and risk losing hard-won support among Latin American governments to punish President Nicolas Maduro for taking Venezuela down the path of dictatorship, according to the official. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.

But Trump pushed back. Although he gave no indication he was about to order up military plans, he pointed to what he considered past cases of successful gunboat diplomacy in the region, according to the official, like the invasions of Panama and Grenada in the 1980s.

The idea, despite his aides’ best attempts to shoot it down, would nonetheless persist in the president’s head.

The next day, Aug. 11, Trump alarmed friends and foes alike with talk of a “military option” to remove Maduro from power. The public remarks were initially dismissed in U.S. policy circles as the sort of martial bluster people have come to expect from the reality TV star turned commander in chief.

But shortly afterward, he raised the issue with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, according to the U.S. official. Two high-ranking Colombian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing Trump confirmed the report.

Then in September, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Trump discussed it again, this time at greater length, in a private dinner with leaders from four Latin American allies that included Santos, the same three people said and Politico reported in February.

The U.S. official said Trump was specifically briefed not to raise the issue and told it wouldn’t play well, but the first thing the president said at the dinner was, “My staff told me not to say this.” Trump then went around asking each leader if they were sure they didn’t want a military solution, according to the official, who added that each leader told Trump in clear terms they were sure.

Eventually, McMaster would pull aside the president and walk him through the dangers of an invasion, the official said.

Taken together, the behind-the-scenes talks, the extent and details of which have not been previously reported, highlight how Venezuela’s political and economic crisis has received top attention under Trump in a way that was unimaginable in the Obama administration. But critics say it also underscores how his “America First” foreign policy at times can seem outright reckless, providing ammunition to America’s adversaries.

The downsides to this idea should be so blindingly obvious that they hardly need to be pointed out.

First of all, rhetoric such as the kind that Trump engages in when he does things like this is only going to end up reinforcing the position of people like Maduro who have built their political careers on accusing the United States of being an international bully in Latin America and elsewhere. If nothing else, it’s a throwback to an era when American military intervention in the region was far more common, and it typically ended up with the installation of authoritarian right-wing regimes that engaged in extensive human rights violations while the United States basically looked the other way. This happened over the course of the 20th Century most notably in cases such as those that occurred in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, and eventually led to popular uprisings and civil war and, in some cases, the rise of populist left-wing governments that were openly hostile to the United States and openly friendly toward adversaries such as Castro’s Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Second, even if we were successful in overturning the Maduro government that would hardly be the end of the affair. Such an action would inevitably make us responsible for the political future of Venezuela just as the unjustified and unnecessary invasion of Iraq that led to the toppling of Saddam Hussein forced us to become responsible for the political future of Iraq. The result back then, of course, was what effectively amounted to a civil war in which American forces became little more than cannon fodder fighting for a dubious and unclear cause. Add into this the dangers that could be posed to the United States and Central and South America by a destabilized Venezuela and the very idea of doing what the President apparently suggested, and the idea becomes even more silly and stupid.

Finally, even suggesting something such as this has the potential to undo decades of American diplomacy in the region that has sought to repair relationships that were frayed largely due to the reflexive tendency of the United States to intervene in the affairs of sovereign nations in Central and South America based largely on the idea that their geographic closeness to us gave us the right do so. Not surprisingly, such attitudes didn’t exactly work out so well for the native populations in those nations and indeed the entire region. For the most part, we’ve accomplished that goal. Someone like Trump, with irresponsible talk such as invading a nation of 31 million people because we don’t like the government, threatens to ruin all of that just as he’s ruining our relationships with allies like Canada Mexico, and Europe.

As Daniel Larison notes, this kind of reports is yet another indication of how ill-informed the President is when it comes to foreign affairs:

The report makes clear that Trump’s first instinct was to resort to military action, and he kept coming back to it on the foolish assumption it would be like the invasions of Panama and Grenada. He was not opposed to starting an unprovoked and unnecessary war against a country th2at posed no threat to the United States, and it was only because he encountered overwhelming opposition from everyone he talked to about it that he appears to have given up on the idea for now.

The story confirms what we have seen elsewhere: Trump has bad instincts and bad judgment especially when it comes to foreign policy, he has no problem with using force as a first resort, and it takes the concerted effort of everyone around him to stop him from doing exceptionally stupid and dangerous things. That suggests he is likely to start a war somewhere else when his advisers and Cabinet members are urging him to do it, and he is surrounded by Iran hawks that have publicly advocated attacking Iran. As U.S. policy keeps stoking tensions with Iran, the risk of a new and very costly war is growing.

Fortunately, Trump was talked down from his irresponsible talk about Venezuela, or at least he was for the time being, whether that’s going to work the next time the instinct to use force comes into his mind is another question.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Latin America, Military Affairs, National Security, Politicians, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Kathy says:

    I doubt we’ll get to mid-2019 without another stupid war, probably in Iran.

    One needs to understand Dennison is not a president. He may be the president since he won the election (even if not the vote), but he’s not a leader who’s schooled in policy and could steer his country, and his allies, towards a goal. He’s also not an administrator, even an ineffective one, who can keep the executive branch running well.

  2. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    When it comes to anything outside publicity seeking, Trump’s instincts are pretty bad, period.

    I can’t even talk to my Dad about politics anymore, because he’s convinced that a “successful” businessman like Trump simply must know what he’s doing. Pointing out that he’s actually a businessman who’s failed over and over, and if it wasn’t for his inheritance and bankruptcy laws he’d be living out of his car, doesn’t even make a dent. The biggest con Trump has pulled is convincing people that someone who managed to bankrupt multiple casinos is some sort of business genius.

    As others noted in the thread on the national debt and deficit, he’s doing to the country’s finances exactly what he always does–run up massive debt and figure out a way to avoid paying it later (in this case, by letting the next President deal with it). The man’s a charlatan with lousy instincts about almost everything except conning people and getting his name in the news.

  3. Kathy says:

    The other thing is that comparisons with Grenada or Panama simply do not apply.

    Grenada is a speck on the map with little consequence to anyone who doesn’t live there. Prior to Reagan’s invasion, few had even heard of it. After the invasion, little has been heard from it.

    In Panama there had just been a fraudulent election, blatantly stolen from its rightful winners. So there was a government waiting to take over. Plus a vital interest called the Panama Canal, which at the time was still under US jurisdiction.

    Even so, there was a fair amount of blowback in the region.

    In contrast Venezuela is big, the military seems committed to Maduro, the opposition is fractured, and there are large swaths of Amazon jungle in the country, plus some mountainous areas as well. That’s a recipe that nurtures guerrillas and insurgencies.

    Not to mention the numbers of refugees that would flood out of the country. This, in fact, is already an issue in the region. But an invasion would make matters much worse. and of course, should even one of them dare set foot in America or ask for asylum, well, we can imagine what might happen.

  4. teve tory says:

    That suggests he is likely to start a war somewhere else when his advisers and Cabinet members are urging him to do it, and he is surrounded by Iran hawks that have publicly advocated attacking Iran. As U.S. policy keeps stoking tensions with Iran, the risk of a new and very costly war is growing.

    fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. If we invade Iran it’ll be the biggest US military mistake since Vietnam.

  5. CSK says:

    This reminds me of the time when Trump repeatedly asked “his generals” why he couldn’t use nukes on ISIS. It was explained to him three times by three different people why this would be a really, really bad idea.

    Not to speak of the fiasco with Kim Jong Un. And the upcoming meeting with Putin, after he completely alienates the Brits and trashes NATO, will be a disaster of epic proportions.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    Venezuela is the size of Texas and North Dakota combined, with the population of California. It contains mountains like Afghanistan and jungles like Vietnam as well as a number of large cities.

    I don’t see the problem with an invasion. Piece of cake. We’ll be welcomed with flowers. Over by Christmas.

  7. CSK says:

    I have to say, those soldiers standing behind Trump don’t look particularly thrilled to be in the presence of their C in C, do they? Maybe it was that or be forced to dig latrines in 105 degree weather.

  8. Charon says:


    Iran has/is:

    Three times the area of Iraq

    Three times the population of Iraq

    Lots of mountainous terrain

    Mostly one intensely patriotic ethnic group

    Shiite culture that glorifies martyrdom

    Strategic location on the Straits of Hormuz.

    Obviously war with Iran would be a piece of cake, should go really great.

  9. Kathy says:


    That wouldn’t deter Dennison.

    I’ve this notion that when he criticized wars and military interventions in his campaign, it was because he thought wars should go as they do in fiction: invade today, conquer tomorrow, go home by the weekend to a glorious military parade and the everlasting gratitude of the entire world.

    Clearly neither Afghanistan nor Iraq went like that. Not even Libya did.

    And he is delusional enough to think things would be different if he were in charge. I just hope he doesn’t get a chance to prove himself wrong.

  10. grumpy realist says:

    I just talked with my finance people and am taking all my stock market gains off the table. And I wasn’t even thinking about the mess a U.S.-Iran war would cause.

    Wonder what Dearest Donnie’s fan boys are going to think when we get Great Depression II? Somehow I predict they’ll blame the crash on a) Obama b) Hillary c) Democrats.

  11. CSK says:


    Come on. He’s gotta prove his manhood some way, and starting a war’s a great way to do it.

  12. CSK says:

    Somewhat OT, but according to CCN, the WH just announced that Trump has hired Bill Shine as Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications.

  13. SenyorDave says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Plus the war will pay for itself when we have access to all that free Venezuelan oil!

  14. Kit says:

    Oh! to live long enough to read all the emails, recollections, and shelved memoirs that will eventually see the light of day… Can you imagine being some bright young thing, starry-eyed and idealistic, simply hoping to help push through righteous tax cuts and loosen evil environmental regulations, and instead finding yourself having to talk the boss out of some late-night enthusiasm for invading/nuking some country or other?

  15. Kathy says:


    Well, oil prices would shoot up in case of war against either Iran or Venezuela, and that would be good for Mexico.

  16. al Ameda says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Venezuela is the size of Texas and North Dakota combined, with the population of California. It contains mountains like Afghanistan and jungles like Vietnam as well as a number of large cities.
    I don’t see the problem with an invasion. Piece of cake. We’ll be welcomed with flowers. Over by Christmas.

    Christmas? Labor Day at the outside.
    I’m establishing a betting line, with the over/under on the number of days – from the shock/awe attack, to welcomed with rose petals, to “Mission Accomplished’ Tweet – at 17.

  17. Mikey says:

    @Kathy: And Russia.

  18. Mister Bluster says:

    What was it that Tillerson did not deny saying?

    Oh yeah…


  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: As long as Mexico is a net exporter, sure.

  20. Jen says:

    @teve tory:

    If we invade Iran it’ll be the biggest US military mistake since Vietnam.

    By my assessment, it will be far, far worse than Vietnam. The price of oil would go through the roof (tanking our economy), and that region is a tinderbox anyway. It would take a hot second for that region to go to 11 almost immediately, not to mention wrapping in the current semi-proxy war we’ve already got going there in Syria. Add in Israel and nukes, and the likelihood that Syria would start lobbing chemical weapons…I don’t see how that wouldn’t devolve into WWIII pretty quickly.

  21. Not the IT Dept. says:

    The most important thing to realize about Trump voters is that they saw Trump for years on television acting the part of a successful businessman, using his own really real name. They have a new reality to live in and the old reality, with its complications and contradictions and foreigners acting in ways that are strange, is too painful to exist in anymore. They’ll stick it out with Trump all the way down – maybe the writers next season will create the victory they know is coming.

  22. Charon says:


    That might be a bit alarmist.

    I do think, though, it would quickly be obvious we are getting a real ass-whupping, way worse than Vietnam.

  23. Jen says:


    Maybe a bit alarmist, but…

    1) We still depend on oil, and a major disruption would be very bad for our economy
    2) Assad would love some additional distraction to further his own goals
    3) Divisions in the region have been simmering for a very long time
    4) Look at what is currently happening in Yemen
    5) Russia has interests in the region
    6) Netanyahu has been ratcheting up tensions in his corner
    7) Qatar is being isolated

    If we decide to go head-to-head with Iran in the region, it could quickly become a massive quagmire–if we’d even become more involved in *Syria* things could have gotten messy quickly in the region. I do think it would be a bigger mess than Vietnam, in no small part because of the fact that we are currently still dependent on oil. The resource disruption alone would cause problems, and not just for us.