Members of the National Guard take part in a military exercise at Garcia Hevia airport in La Fria, Tachira state Venezuela September 10, 2019. Photo: AFP / Schneyder Mendoza

Do we already have an answer to the question whether US foreign policy will become less conflict-prone now that John Bolton is gone?

The United States invoked a regional defense pact Wednesday with 10 other countries and Venezuela’s opposition after “bellicose” moves by Nicolas Maduro’s regime. A request to invoke the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR) came from the Venezuelan opposition, said a statement from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, retweeted early Thursday by President Donald Trump.

“Recent bellicose moves by the Venezuelan military to deploy along the border with Colombia as well as the presence of illegal armed groups and terrorist organizations in Venezuelan territory demonstrate that Nicolas Maduro not only poses a threat to the Venezuelan people, his actions threaten the peace and security of Venezuela’s neighbors,” Pompeo said.

This news – if the term may be used for tweeted middle-of-the-DC-night vagueness – comes just one day after the exit of John Bolton as US national security advisor removed the most forceful voice pushing Trump’s foreign policy to the right.

Bolton was among the few officials who mused about a military response in Venezuela, where Trump has been unsuccessfully seeking to remove leftist leader Maduro.

Trump has spoken little in recent weeks on Venezuela and reportedly grew upset with Bolton for predicting a quick toppling of Maduro.

Venezuela was thrust into a political crisis in January when opposition leader Guaido declared himself acting president, in a direct challenge to Maduro’s authority over the country from which millions have fled economic deprivation.

The opposition has branded the socialist leader a “usurper” over his re-election last year in a poll widely viewed as rigged.

Pompeo said in the statement that invoking the TIAR is “recognition of the increasingly destabilizing influence” the Maduro regime has in the region.

“Catastrophic economic policies and political repression continue to drive this unprecedented refugee crisis, straining the ability of governments to respond,” he said.

“We look forward to further high-level discussions with fellow TIAR parties, as we come together to collectively address the urgent crisis raging within Venezuela and spilling across its border through the consideration of multilateral economic and political options.”

On Tuesday Venezuela’s armed forces chiefs said they had begun mobilizing 150,000 troops for military exercises on the Colombian border, after accusing Colombia of plotting to spark a military conflict.

Last week Maduro said Colombia was using the rejection by dissident FARC leaders of a peace accord to try to provoke a military conflict, and said he was placing his forces on high alert.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s right-wing President Ivan Duque had accused Maduro of sheltering FARC dissidents.

Venezuela’s National Assembly – which Guaido leads – in July decided to re-join the TIAR, which could provide a legal framework for foreign military intervention. But the country’s Supreme Court annulled the decision to join.

Guaido is backed by more than 50 nations, including the United States and many others in the TIAR, which was originally ratified by 23 countries at the start of the Cold War.

Five of those – at the time all under leftist governments – left in 2012, while Mexico distanced itself in 2004.

Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela withdrew over Washington’s refusal to take Argentina’s side in 1982 after it invaded the British-ruled Falkland Islands – claiming American inaction meant the pact was meaningless.

Despite US backing Guaido has failed to dislodge Maduro, who still enjoys support from Russia, China, and Cuba as well as Venezuela’s military leadership.

‘Not smart’

The Pompeo-Trump announcement left unclear whether, in the longer term, the administration’s preferred balance between talks and military moves has changed with Bolton’s exit.

Bolton’s worldview overlapped in some areas with Trump’s, especially in their “America First” contempt for international organizations. But the mogul-turned-president has long called for fewer military interventions overseas and singled out Bolton’s strident comments on North Korea as an area of disagreement.

Bolton had cited the “Libyan model” for North Korea, a reference to a denuclearization deal with its dictator Moamer Kadhafi – who was captured and tortured to death after being deposed in a Western-backed revolt in 2011.

“That’s not a question of being tough, that’s a question of being not smart,” Trump told reporters Wednesday, saying he didn’t blame North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un for being upset.

Bolton, a 70-year-old master of Washington infighting, succeeded in championing hawkish stances on Venezuela and Iran and pressing Trump to hold back from an accord with North Korea at a February summit.

He had pressed Trump only to accept a more stringent nuclear deal with North Korea, which famously once branded Bolton “human scum” for his hard line.

“Bolton’s exit may lead to a more realistic, step-by-step approach to North Korean denuclearization, where Bolton’s ‘all-or-nothing’ approach to easing sanctions has produced a deadlock despite three Trump-Kim summits,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former US ambassador to South Korea and Russia.

Replacement possibilities

Trump has promised a replacement next week and that choice – along with how the Venezuela matter plays out – could signal the shape of his foreign policy for the rest of his term.

Will Trump pick another hardliner, albeit one who is more congenial? Or will he choose a more traditional figure such as Bolton’s predecessor, military scholar HR McMaster?

Or could Trump go in a third direction in his third year in office, finding a libertarian-minded critic of foreign wars along the lines of Republican Senator Rand Paul?

“The threat of war around the world has been greatly diminished with John Bolton out of the White House,” crowed Paul, an advocate of pulling troops from Afghanistan and diplomacy with Iran.

Bolton, however, had staunch defenders among more bellicose Republicans. Senator Ted Cruz asked if “deep-state” bureaucrats “have finally convinced the president to go soft on Iran.”

Bolton’s departure, and signs he intends to be outspoken from outside the White House, “sets the stage for a GOP civil war over foreign policy,” wrote Brookings Institution senior fellow Tom Wright, referring to the Republican Party.

Pompeo in lead

For now, Bolton’s departure leaves foreign policy in the hands of the secretary of state, who shares hawkish views on Iran and other key issues.

But unlike Bolton, Pompeo is widely seen as holding future political ambitions and is careful never to show any daylight with Trump.

Mindful that he is up for re-election next year, Trump for months has “wanted to pivot to striking deals with America’s enemies” including Iran, Afghanistan’s Taliban, North Korea and even Russia, Wright said.

“Pompeo was willing to accept this to shape it. Bolton was not and sought to sabotage it,” Wright wrote on Twitter.

Trump has voiced willingness to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the UN General Assembly in New York later this month after France launched a bid to ease tensions.

Rouhani says he will only consider a meeting if the United States removes sanctions, a prospect that is anathema for Bolton, who is close to Iran’s opposition militants and in the past has called for military force and regime change.

Asked after Bolton’s departure if Trump could meet Rouhani, Pompeo – who for months has rarely missed an opportunity to bash Iran – was strikingly upbeat.

“Sure,” Pompeo replied. “The president has made very clear he is prepared to meet with no preconditions.”

Vershbow, now at the Atlantic Council, feared that, without Bolton’s influence, Trump could curtail military support for Ukraine as he curries favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Democrats universally rejoiced at Bolton’s departure, while saying he should never have had the job.

“The only question about his replacement is the same after all Trump resignations,” said Representative Adam Schiff. “Will we go from bad to worse?”

-Reporting by AFP-

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