Impromptu threats are counterproductive

Nicolas Maduro and Kim Jong Un are unalike in many ways, but one thing the strongmen of Venezuela and North Korea do have in common: both have been threatened by President Donald Trump. Both cases also underline the folly of the leader of a superpower like the United States talking off the top of his head on matters of high sensitivity and seriousness.

That was eminently true of the president's warning that North Korea risked "fire and fury like the world has never seen" in a conflict with America over its nuclear weapons. Only slightly less blustery were his off-the-cuff remarks on Venezuela in which he included "a possible military option" among the tools at America's disposal in dealing with Maduro's leftist regime.

The crises in Venezuela and North Korea plainly call for U.S. concern, but they also call for far more caution than the president showed in his threat talk. Noisy bombast heightens international tensions but doesn't serve American interests and world peace either place.

In Korea, economic sanctions and diplomacy pursued in conjunction with China, Russia, and other countries are the best recipe for the U.S. Efforts along these lines have begun. By contrast, the use of force on the Korean peninsula would involve what the U.S. bishops' international affairs chairman, Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., calls a "high certainty of catastrophic death and destruction."

The outlines of a settlement can perhaps be discerned in linking an agreed scaling back of U.S.-South Korean military exercises with acceptance by the North of meaningful international supervision of its nuclear program. U.S. threats will be no help in bringing that about.

Something else Bishop Cantu said in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also deserves attention: "Nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction do not ensure security or peace. Instead, they exacerbate tensions and produce an arms race as countries acquire more weapons of mass destruction in an attempt to intimidate or threaten other nations."

As for Venezuela, it should be clear that threatening U.S. military intervention to overthrow the Maduro regime is an excellent way of bringing Latin Americans together in support of Maduro. Left to their own devices, Latin American countries are perfectly capable of pressing for democracy in Venezuela.

None of this is to say the present situation in Venezuela is good or even tolerable. Pope Francis has attempted to mediate the growing conflict, but without results so far, and the country's bishops are said to want a stronger public stand by the Pope than he has taken.

As Venezuelans voted July 30--in an election boycotted by the opposition--for an assembly to rewrite the constitution to give Maduro more power, the bishops asked for prayers to Mary to "free our country from the clutches of communism and socialism."

Prayer is undoubtedly needed, as is pressure from other Latin American countries. But muscle-flexing from the White House can only be counterproductive. "We are Venezuelans...we are the ones who have to resolve this crisis," said Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savina of Caracas.

Mr. Trump's critics often accuse him of ignoring advice, talking too much, and misspeaking as a result. Some of this criticism is unfair--the kneejerk anti-Trumpism of people for whom playing gotcha at the expense of the president has become part of a crusade to remove him from office. But Trump also brings a lot of the criticism on himself by stubbornly refusing to change his ways. We might all pay dearly for that self-indulgence in days to come.

- Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books. He is a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and served as communications director for the U.S. Bishops.