Why you should care
The U.S. is showing military muscle to foes in South America, Asia and the Middle East … all at the same time.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What happened? In the past few days, President Donald Trump’s administration has made military challenges toward not just one country, but three: China, Iran and Venezuela. Just days after the U.S.-backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó (pictured) failed to rally military officers against President Nicolás Maduro, senior figures from Trump’s national security team discussed a possible military intervention there. Meanwhile, Sunday saw the announcement that the U.S. is deploying an aircraft carrier and bomber wing toward Iran in response to what it claimed was a looming attack on U.S. interests in the Middle East. Then Monday, the U.S. deployed two warships in the disputed South China Sea, sparking outrage in Beijing (just one day after the president tweeted that he’d hike tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods).
Why does it matter? The U.S. military is no stranger to fighting on multiple fronts. In 2015, American armed forces, for example, were deployed to 135 countries and engaged in major conflicts in at least five of those. But these suddenly bellicose moves have some concerned that Trump’s already aggressive foreign policy has just been shifted into overdrive — steered by the hawkish national security adviser John Bolton. Technically, the U.S. Congress is responsible for declaring war, but many commanders in chief, including former presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan, have unilaterally ordered attacks in the past, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said he believes such intervention in Venezuela would be lawful.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Pulling back. Though Pompeo needled Russian officials over Moscow’s alleged involvement in the conflict in Venezuela Sunday, Trump reportedly urged caution from senior advisers. He spoke to Putin over the weekend and ended the call claiming that Russia is “not at all looking to get involved” in the Venezuelan conflict. Shortly afterward, Venezuela’s foreign minister met with his Russian counterpart in what’s thought to be an attempt to show international support for Maduro’s regime.
U.S. officials claimed the deployment of military force toward Iran was triggered by reports that Tehran was preparing an attack on U.S. troops in the Middle East. But it’s part of a larger campaign against Iran’s previous steps toward opening up to the wider world. Other recent moves from the U.S. have included ending waivers that allowed U.S. allies to buy Iranian oil, and designating the country’s state-sponsored Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded to the latter by passing a bill last Tuesday that formally labeled all U.S. military personnel in the Middle East “terrorists.”
Meanwhile, in China. Previous U.S. missions in the South China Sea have come close to causing diplomatic incidents. In October last year, the U.S. Navy said the USS Decatur was forced off course by a warship as it sailed by the Spratly Islands. China maintains its claim to the South China Sea, and therefore sees U.S. trips as a violation of its borders. But for others in the region, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, such outings by the U.S. and other allies are vital to maintaining order in the disputed waters.
But it’s all about internal politics. Tensions are more likely sparked by movements in China’s own political system than indicative of a shift in relations between the two countries. With Trump putting on the pressure, Chinese leader Xi Jinping risks looking weak if he kowtows, but foreign investors are pushing for their own reforms. Meanwhile, spiraling markets have resulted from Trump’s tweets, with soybean and corn futures — both of which would be targeted in a tit-for-tat trade war — falling to their lowest point in more than four decades. Planned retaliatory tariffs from China could further target the Rust Belt, a region where voters turned out in droves for Trump in 2016. That, analysts say, could also be behind Trump’s calculation in toughening his stance on China: It may appeal to voters hit hard by Chinese tariffs.
WHAT TO READ
Trump’s China Brinksmanship, in The Wall Street Journal
“Marshaling a united front with allies toward Beijing would have been better, but Mr. Trump is a unilateralist and his household remedy is tariffs.”
How Dangerous Are U.S.-Iran Tensions? by Keith Johnson in Foreign Policy
“Depending on its willingness to incur casualties and massive counterstrikes, Iran could impede shipping through the Persian Gulf area for a limited period of time.”
WHAT TO WATCH
US Sending Aircraft Carrier, Bomber to Middle East to Warn Iran
“Neither side wants war, which would be costly for the U.S. and disastrous for Iran, but with both sides making threats and actual preparations for attacks, the threat of an accidental war is increasing.”
Watch on CBS This Morning on YouTube:
Trump Says ‘All Options Are on the Table’ in Venezuela
“If this effort fails, [Venezuela] will sink into a dictatorship.”
Watch on ABC News on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Sending them back. While President Trump has expressed support for the people of Venezuela in his criticisms of Maduro, he’s so far resisted calls from a bipartisan group of lawmakers to extend temporary protected status (TPS) to Venezuelans seeking asylum in the United States. About 5.3 million people are thought to have fled Venezuela amid shortages of food and medical supplies, and about 25,000 sought asylum in the U.S. between February 2018 and January of this year, the largest number from any single country. TPS can be unilaterally granted by administration officials due to extraordinary circumstances in the country asylum-seekers are fleeing.