“A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colorful entry into the capital ... We shall expect the first victory about the middle of July.”
Those immortal words of advice were given to William Boot, the accidental foreign correspondent who is the hero of Evelyn Waugh's novel "Scoop." They came from the fictional newspaper proprietor, Lord Copper, who wasn't too worried about which side were really "patriots"; he just wanted a happy and rapid end. Waugh's novel satirized the British press of the 1930s, their empty sensationalism and their disdain for reality. A similar spirit pervades the making of American foreign policy today.
To see what I mean, look again at the extraordinary story published in The Post on Wednesday, describing President Donald Trump's loss of confidence in his administration's policy in Venezuela. Since January, the president has been happy to play along with his national security adviser, John Bolton, and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo; together they persuaded him to recognize Juan Guaidó, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, as the rightful president of Venezuela. But after Guaidó failed recently to bring the Venezuelan army over to his side, it seems the American president, like Lord Copper, began to lose patience.
Now, according to The Post, he praises Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as a "tough cookie," he suspects Bolton is trying to drag him into a war and he is persuaded by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the foreign statesman he most admires, that the United States should not "get involved" in Venezuela, except maybe to offer some humanitarian aid. Never mind that Russia has extensive military contacts in Venezuela, or that the Russian army conducted joint exercises in December with the Venezuelan army, precisely the people who refuse now to abandon a regime that has driven the country into poverty and despair. Trump accepts Putin's version of events partly because he admires the Russian president, partly because he is ignorant, and mostly because the story has dragged on too long, the victory hasn't arrived and there is no "colorful entry into the capital" to show on the evening news.
This impatience has consequences. All over the world, the Trump administration is pursuing a range of policies: tweeting insults at Maduro, negotiating with a defiant North Korea, sending a small fleet of warships to the Persian Gulf to intimidate Iran. But the speed with which the president always sours on these efforts means they can never be part of any discernible strategy. Certainly they don't reflect any coherent philosophy. Is the United States still in favor of promoting democracy, as some of the proponents of the Venezuela policy claim? Is the United States in the business of courting dictators, which is the essence of the North Korea policy? Does the United States want to flaunt its strength and make other countries afraid, which seems to be the point of the Persian Gulf fleet? Or is the United States now "isolationist," which is why the administration is keeping silent about a new Russian offensive in Syria, the early stages of which Trump pushed back against in 2017?
A handful of sycophants are still trying to knit all of these different policies into some kind of coherent argument — it’s all about “America First,” didn’t you know? — but the truth is that the United States is now in thrall to a president who will trash any of his employees’ initiatives if they don’t produce “wins” for his core television audience. North Korea has been hastily forgotten; the same fate awaits Venezuela and, if nothing happens, Iran. U.S. administrations have always had short attention spans, and the U.S. government has never had much of an appetite for drawn-out conflicts. But this administration has the attention span of a bored, petulant, channel-surfing septuagenarian looking for something juicy to watch on his extra-large screen. In other words, this administration has the attention span of a gnat.
Even in the best of times, the United States' ability to influence events in faraway places is limited. The tools we have, from soft power and diplomacy to sanctions and bombing campaigns, are never guaranteed to succeed. The best strategies take years, even decades, to achieve anything at all: The Cold War was won, in part, thanks to small investments in the journalism of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, all of which would have looked like a waste of money in the 1960s, or even the 1980s. But successive administrations kept them up because they were part of a larger plan, and an international orientation that was accepted by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Now there is no plan; there is only whim and instinct. There is no international orientation either, just a series of hasty unplanned, unexamined decisions, followed by Twitter tantrums. A wise administration would have tempered expectations for “victories” in Venezuela, North Korea and Iran from the beginning. But this is an administration whose ethos belongs to a Waugh novel, not the complicated 21st-century world.