In a speech richly deserving adaption as a Saturday Night Live skit, US national security adviser John Bolton has unveiled the latest extension of America’s enemies list. Eclipsing the post-9/11 ‘Axis of Evil’ we now have a ‘Troika of Tyranny,’ consisting of those powerhouse troublemakers Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. According to Bolton, ‘this triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua is the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere.’
But fear not. Under the leadership of President Trump, the United States is now ‘taking direct action against all three regimes to defend the rule of law, liberty, and basic human decency in our region.’ The phrase ‘direct action’ may conjure up images of US forces mounting major military interventions sure to incorporate some reference to freedom in any codename the Pentagon might select. Operation Cuba Libre, perhaps. Or Operation Nicaraguan Freedom and Democracy or Operation Enduring Venezuelan Liberty. You get the idea.
But, no, it appears that in practice ‘direct action’ translates into putting the screws to societies that are already having a tough time of it, to put it mildly. Bolton stated Washington’s demands in the form of an ultimatum: The three governments will either comply or ‘feel the full weight of America’s robust sanctions regime.’
There are two points to be made about Bolton’s initiative. First, it arrives drenched in hypocrisy. The United States has never cared a fig about whether Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans enjoyed the rule of law, liberty, and basic human decency. The history of US relations with those nations has alternated between naked exploitation and complete disregard. Second, whatever form any coming US sanctions may actually take, you can count on one thing: It won’t be Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan elites who suffer. It will be ordinary people.
Only one possible explanation exists for the breathtaking cynicism implicit in Bolton’s speech: domestic politics.
As a venue for unveiling this shift in policy, the national security adviser chose Miami just days before the midterm elections. All the smart political minds say that Florida is critical, not only to Republican prospects of keeping control of the Congress, but also to Trump’s own hopes of winning reelection in 2020. What better way to contribute to that cause than to genuflect before Miami’s large Latin community and play to ancient prejudices, to include redbaiting: ‘sordid cradle of communism,’ indeed.
Even before being appointed to his current job, Bolton had acquired a well-deserved reputation as a political hack. He has now affirmed that reputation in spades. Targeting the ‘triangle of terror’ might strike a chord with right wing Floridians. But when it comes to advancing the cause of national security or of human decency, its benefits will be nil.
Andrew Bacevich’s new book is Twilight of the American Century, just out from the University of Notre Dame Press.