When he was Undersecretary of State in the early 2000s, John Bolton insisted communist Cuba had an “offensive biological warfare research and development” program.
Cuba did have an advanced genetic engineering, biotech and vaccine complex. And Cuba was still ruled by Fidel Castro, a despot capable of such nefarious doings. Still, there was no evidence, and none ever surfaced, that cash-strapped Cuba was exporting anthrax instead of vastly more profitable meningitis vaccines.
But that sort of hawkish illusion, or delusion, is what the world came to expect of Bolton – whom President Trump fired this week as his national security advisor.
Granted, some of Trump’s reasons for the dismissal were bogus, like Bolton’s objection to the President’s ludicrous bromance with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. But others were actually valid – including Bolton’s penchant for peddling national security stories that add up only in his rarefied geopolitical imagination.
An imagination that’s especially fertile in the western hemisphere.
Consider the fall – or the fall we’re told is coming any moment now – of what Bolton coined Latin America’s “troika of tyranny.” Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.
I have no problem with Bolton’s desire to see that troika tumble. Who doesn’t, unless you’re a hopelessly dogmatic left-winger who doesn't mind people being deprived of freedom and futures? The problem I do have is that Bolton is a hopelessly dogmatic right-winger with a reckless, alarmist belief that America can and should chop down every regime he considers a rogue threat.
In this case, Bolton sold Washington a fantasy bill of goods about the imminent collapse of Venezuela’s catastrophic socialist dictatorship.
Bolton was right to get Trump to back opposition leader Juan Guaidó in January as Venezuela’s constitutionally legitimate president – something more than 50 other nations have since done. He was right to convince Trump to tighten economic sanctions on the Venezuelan regime.
But Bolton was wrong to convince Trump – and to try to convince the rest of us, especially anxious Venezuelan expats here in South Florida – that those moves alone would sink the regime. It was dishonest to have us believe Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro would be on a plane to exile in a matter of days, weeks at the most. And it was half-baked to feed hopes that once that happened, Cuba and Nicaragua too would quickly capsize.
When none of that materialized, Bolton dug himself and the U.S. a deeper hole by resorting to the John Wayne stuff – the warnings that a U.S. military intervention option was “on the table,” when clearly it wasn’t because any freshman poli sci major knew it would create more problems than it would solve.
Here's what Bolton left out of his Hollywood western script: the Guaidó symbolism and the economic sanctions had to be followed up with genuine, long-haul diplomatic work with international partners. The goal would be to convince Maduro – and the military that still backs him – to exit, or to hold a transparent, special presidential election that would surely result in his exit.
Bolton clung instead to his tough-guy, “Maduro’s days are numbered” hallucination. By the time he showed up last month in Peru for a meeting of hemispheric nations that are urging Maduro to restore democracy, he’d squandered their initial enthusiasm for yanqui leadership.
The worst part: when Trump dumped Bolton this week, Maduro – one of the more appalling creeps the Latin American left has ever produced – declared a perverse victory.
Trump deserves a good chunk of the blame, though. He himself lost enthusiasm for the Venezuela campaign when he saw it wouldn’t be a quick, easy triumph he could wave in front of Florida’s Latino voters in time for the 2020 election. Bolton’s approach to the troika of tyranny crusade may have been foolishly self-deluded, but the President’s was as cynically self-interested as a ribbon-cutting at a new Trump Tower.
Nor should we forget Bolton had plenty of help crafting the Venezuela illusion. Cuban-American hardliners like Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Mauricio Claver-Carone, Trump’s top Latin America advisor, were in on it, as was Florida Senator Rick Scott. So was the Venezuelan opposition, which assured the White House that Venezuela's military brass would line up behind Guaidó as soon as he declared himself el presidente real.
Now Venezuelans, especially here in the diaspora, are left to wonder if Washington will remain as committed to their country's redemption. If so, they should hope Trump’s next national security advisor will be as determined as Bolton – but a lot less deluded.