In most of the media, it's playing as one of those gotcha moments. At Monday's White House press briefing National Security Advisor John Bolton came to make some remarks on Venezuela. He carried a lined yellow legal pad, on which two short scribbled notes were visible to photographers. The scribble that made news was: "5,000 troops to Colombia."
That sure sounds like a ramped-up threat to Colombia's neighbor, Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. A glimpse of inside pow-wows at the White House. It looked a lot more specific than President Trump's warning that "all options are on the table."
Was it a slip on Bolton's part? Did the media steal a march on the National Security Advisor, by catching his note on camera?
As Fox News reported it, "National Security Advisor John Bolton may have inadvertently revealed a potential next move by the Trump administration… "
The Hill turned the reaction into part of the story, reporting: "The picture quickly went viral on social media, with many raising questions about the administration's approach to handline the escalating political crisis in the country," and added — with what seems by now the obligatory use in the media of second-hand anonymous sources — "Three unnamed defense officials told NBC News that no troops or assets were being sent to Venezuela or Colombia despite the statement on Bolton's legal pad."
CNN went with a headline more focused on the gotcha than on the substance: "White House questioned after official's notes caught on camera."
The story that to my mind made the most sense was Margaret Talev's dispatch on Bloomberg, "Hint to Maduro: '5,000 Troops to Colombia,' Reads Bolton Notepad." She left it an open question whether Bolton had slipped up, or knew exactly what he was doing: "Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro may wonder whether President Donald Trump is trying to rattle him… Bolton entered a press briefing on new Venezuela sanctions with a yellow legal pad, accidentally — or not — turned to face gathered reporters and photographers."
Absent the ability to read Bolton's mind, we're all guessing. But there's plenty of context that we do know. For starters, the Trump administration has declared its full support for Venezuela's interim president, Juan Guaido, who embodies Venezuela's best hope of ending the catastrophic reign of Maduro — whose regime Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accurately described as "morally bankrupt," "economically incompetent" and "profoundly corrupt." The problem is that Maduro, backed by Cuba and Russia, is refusing to go. So, what might be done to protect Guaido and evict Maduro without massive bloodshed?
The Trump administration has been trying every avenue that soft power affords, and urging America's allies to do the same. President Trump has enlisted Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin, as well as Bolton, in a wholesale diplomatic effort to support and protect Guaido. Pence has been speaking to Guaido and the world to detail and underscore America's backing for his interim presidency and promise of a democratic transition. Pompeo has taken the case to the Organization of American States and the United Nations Security Council. Mnuchin has announced new sanctions measures, aimed at blocking the Maduro regime's access to Venezuelan oil revenues and assets in the United States. And Trump has kept a core of courageous American diplomats in Caracas, as emissaries to the newly recognized presidency of Guaido — with Bolton warning Maduro that any breach of their security will be met with "a significant response."
But will soft power be enough? Whatever the declarations of support for Guaido and his legitimacy, or the sanctions on Maduro and his gang, this showdown will be decided on the ground in Venezuela. Short of America going to war to get rid of Maduro, the big question is how to persuade Maduro, his Cuban security apparatus and the Venezuelan military that it would be mortally against their interests to harm, jail or kill Guaido, or turn this crisis into a shooting match — because they would lose.
Anything that points Maduro and his backers toward that conclusion, any threat that motivates Maduro to head toward the exit, could help tip the balance toward an end to his rule. And the prospect of thousands of American troops deploying to Colombia might well — as the Bloomberg story suggested — rattle Maduro. Colombia, which borders on Venezuela, has been absorbing many of the more than three million Venezuelans who have fled Maduro's dictatorship. Colombia is one of the growing number of democracies that have recognized Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela.
Americans are not eager to go to war in Venezuela, and I doubt Colombia savours the prospect either. But it would be a very good thing to persuade Maduro that the will and the plans are there, if that's what it takes.
That's where Bolton's very interesting notepad comes into play. A scribbled note about "5,000 troops to Colombia" is brilliantly ambiguous. Until someone finds a handwriting expert to weigh in, we don't even know if the writing was his — though the odds seem high that it was. Nor can it really be called a "statement." It was a note. Apparently it was a note on page three (there was a circled "3" at the top of the page), so we don't know what was on pages one and two. We don't know if it was a definite plan, or one of many options merely being discussed, or something mentioned but ruled out — we don't know what it was.
Yet the threat to Maduro was there. Well done.
If Bolton exposing his notes to the press was an accident, it was stunning good luck that the only news spilled out was that cryptic yet useful message.
And if Bolton fully intended to let the press capture his note on camera, he did a fine job of it. A beautiful piece of diplomatic poker. That's what I'm betting it was.