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Danziger: Big Success

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.com.

Trump Courts Trouble In Venezuela

When it comes to foreign policy, it’s never clear whether American presidents have forgotten past failures or they have studied them closely in order to duplicate them. Whatever the case, Donald Trump’s aggressive policy toward Venezuela has many precedents that suggest pessimism is in order.

At a speech in Miami on Monday, he called on the Venezuelan military to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro, the leftist strongman whose socialist policies have turned the oil-rich country into a riot of economic disarray. Trump’s speech came on the heels of new U.S. economic sanctions meant to help topple the regime.

The administration has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has proclaimed himself the legitimate president following rigged elections last year. It has set a deadline of Saturday for the Maduro regime to allow trucks to bring food and medicine over the border from Colombia.

Trump threatened members of Venezuela’s military with retribution if they remain loyal to Maduro. He held out the prospect of U.S. military intervention, saying, “All options are open.” In January, national security adviser John Bolton was seen holding a notepad with the words “5,000 troops to Colombia.”

In this effort, the administration is not drawing on successful interventions of the past. It’s taking the blooper reel as a guide. We have ample experience to indicate this approach wouldn’t work and could lead us into disaster.

Barack Obama provided a lesson in the perils of assuming that a firm U.S. push will bring down a besieged autocrat. During the heady days of the Arab Spring, as protests roiled Syria, he announced, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” That was eight years ago, and Assad had the last laugh on Obama, who was faulted for failing to back up his words with forceful action.

Obama’s faith that vocal support for the opposition would turn the tide was unfounded. Trump is courting a similar error. Should the Venezuelan military ignore his plea and Maduro keep his grip on power, the administration would have to choose between Obama-like ineffectuality and military action.

The latter, of course, involves the prospect of shedding American blood in an effort to restore democracy to a country of no strategic importance to the United States. As we discovered in Somalia (1993) and Lebanon (1983), even small-scale missions can turn shockingly bloody, exacting a far higher price than the American people are prepared to pay.

The administration’s demands may do more to help Maduro than to hurt him. Latin Americans have long, unhappy memories of U.S. domination and meddling in the internal affairs of our neighbors, and Trump is hardly a president to allay suspicions about our motives. Just the opposite: He bears a resemblance to corrupt populist caudillos, who have so often impeded democracy in the region. Venezuelans may figure he wants to seize Venezuela’s oil as he thinks we should have done with Iraq’s.

Americans may not recall that in 2002, George W. Bush endorsed a coup against Maduro’s immediate predecessor, Hugo Chavez, which removed him from office — for all of 47 hours. He then regained power and held on to it until his death in 2013.

If Maduro holds on, the administration may have to fall back on economic pressure and diplomatic isolation. If you want to gauge how well that is likely to work, consider the case of Cuba’s Communist government, which has withstood Washington’s hostility for nearly 60 years.

That regime also fended off the 1961 U.S.-supported Bay of Pigs invasion, mounted by exiles bent on overthrowing Fidel Castro. Despite the widespread assumption that the revolution would perish with him, it survived his 2016 demise.

If Maduro does fall, though, there is hardly a guarantee of a happy outcome. Obama’s decision to use air power against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi helped bring him down, but in the aftermath, Libya fell into a chaotic civil war that is still going on.

Even in the worst of places, regime change is an unreliable formula for peace, prosperity or democracy.

Trump ran on an “America first” theme, promising that the U.S. would stop jumping into foreign crises and conflicts in the name of spreading our values. But when a socialist despot sows turmoil in our hemisphere, he falls back on the old-fashioned American policy of wielding a big stick.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: People line up expecting to buy food outside a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela June 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Obama: Russia Responsible For Hacks During Presidential Election

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama on Friday strongly suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally authorized the computer hacks of Democratic Party emails that American intelligence officials say were aimed at helping Republican Donald Trump win the Nov. 8 election.

But with only a month left in office, during a somber press conference before leaving for a family holiday in Hawaii, Obama spoke despairingly about the “nasty” state of U.S. politics, saying the chasm between Democrats and Republicans has made it possible for Russia to cause mischief.

Obama said he has “great confidence” in intelligence reports he has seen showing that Russians hacked into emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and to John Podesta, who was campaign chairman for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The leaked emails revealed details of paid speeches Clinton gave to Wall Street, party infighting, and comments from top aides to Clinton who were shocked about the extent of her use of a private server to send emails while secretary of state.

The leaks led to embarrassing media coverage and prompted some party officials to resign. Obama, who campaigned vigorously for Clinton, said she was treated unfairly and found the media coverage of her troubling.

“This happened at the highest levels of the Russian government,” Obama said when asked whether Putin was personally involved in the hacks. He added that “not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin.”

Obama said he warned Putin in September to stop meddling in American political campaigns, telling his Russian counterpart to “cut it out” during a face-to-face encounter in China at a Group of 20 meeting. Obama said he did not believe that U.S. electronic voting systems were subjected to tampering.

Obama, however, stopped short of directly blaming Putin and said he also wanted to give U.S. intelligence officials more time to produce a report that is due before he leaves office on Jan. 20 and Trump is sworn in as his successor.

Obama called Russia a smaller and weaker country than the United States that “does not produce anything that others want to buy, except oil and gas and arms.”

The comments underscored what Obama called the “sadly deteriorated” relationship between Washington and Moscow, which are also at odds over Russia’s role in Syria’s civil war and its aggressive actions in Ukraine.

Russia has denied U.S. accusations that it was behind the hacks. Two senior government officials told Reuters that the Federal Bureau of Investigation backs the CIA’s view that Russia indeed intervened to help Trump win the presidential election.

Trump has maintained that he won the election fairly and has bristled at suggestions that Moscow influenced the outcome. But at one point during the heated presidential campaign, he publicly encouraged Russia to hack Clinton’s emails.

Trump spoke glowingly in the campaign about Putin, and since winning the election he has named top aides who have ties to Russia, including his nominee for secretary of state, Exxon Mobil Corp Chief Executive Rex Tillerson.

Obama left open the door to U.S. retaliation against Russia to discourage further cyber attacks – countermeasures that may be up to Trump to implement.

Obama said he has had “cordial” discussions with Trump since the election and has stressed that he would do everything he can to ensure a smooth transition. But the outgoing president also criticized Trump’s fellow Republicans broadly.

Referencing polls showing that more than one-third of Republicans approve of Putin, who used to lead the KGB spy agency, Obama said that conservative icon “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave.”

“In some cases, you have voters and elected officials who have more confidence and faith in a foreign adversary than they have in their neighbors,” Obama said.

Adding to the gloomy tone of Obama’s remarks, he addressed two other difficult foreign policy issues that will outlast his time in the White House.

Obama warned about the economic and geopolitical consequences of any breakdown in the U.S.-China relationship, and said Trump should think carefully about the diplomatic repercussions if he decides to “upend” longstanding U.S. diplomatic norms.

Trump angered China earlier this month when he took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen – the first call of its kind since 1979 when President Jimmy Carter acknowledged Taiwan as part of “one China.”

Obama also condemned attacks on Syrian civilians trying to flee the city of Aleppo, blaming President Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Russia and Iran for “atrocities.”

Obama defended his decision to keep U.S. troops out of Syria and avoid military intervention, although he acknowledged the protracted anguish has weighed on him.

“Everything else was tempting because we wanted to do something and it sounded like the right thing to do, but it was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap,” he said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Jeff Mason and Julia Harte; Writing by Richard Cowan and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Alistair Bell and Leslie Adler)

IMAGE: President Barack Obama participates in his last news conference of the year at the White House before leaving for his annual Hawaiian Christmas holiday,  December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst