Jaipur, India in November 2019.

(Tierra del Fuego, Argentina) — The southern most tip of South America was named Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan in the early 1500’s, because as he sailed offshore he saw fires burning on land.

I am told that you can sometimes get a cheap boat ride from here in Ushuaia to Antarctica simply by walking up to the counter at the cruise company and asking if anyone has canceled. If they have you may be welcomed aboard at a discount. I’m not going to do that. I’m not asking. While I am eager to see the southern part of Patagonia I am also looking forward to getting home after four months traveling the world.

I am happy that I chose to end my quest for my personal legend* in South America, because in the three countries I have visited; Peru, Chile and Argentina I can feel the heft of history as I walk the streets and I can also see something of the future.

The entire region is infused with ancient knowledge going back at least to the middle part of the last millennium. That’s when Spain and other European nations began interfering. In more recent times, all three countries declared their independence and then, like the United States, struggled to make their independence work. Chile and Argentina have had more difficult struggles having endured dictatorships and continued foreign interference. At some points by the United States.

Driving into Buenos Aires you are immediately reminded of the nation’s politics as a large image of Evita Peron dominates one end of 9 de Julio Avenue — the Buenos Aires equivalent of Pennsylvania Avenue. She was seen as a champion of the lower classes. Even today people still endure the hot afternoon sun in a shadeless cemetery to visit her grave in the Recoleta section of the city. In death she is as large as life.

In Santiago, Chile the streets are filled almost every day with protestors who are giving global voice to the claim that our world is increasingly becoming a place of haves and have nots. The city is covered with anti-government graffiti. Almost every building has been touched by spray painted slogans and threats aimed at those in power. If you are a politician in Chile you are worried, because it is clear the people are against you.

The major argument being made is for a new constitution, because the current one was written during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The protestors of Santiago are claiming that over four decades many political leaders of different parties have promised change, but none have delivered. Therefore — the people make no distinction between the dictator and those who have followed.

The politicians are listening. In April Chile will hold a nationwide vote on the issue, but the people believe it will only be the first step in a long process. I say the demonstrations in Chile are giving voice to a worldwide movement, because in fact the “rich get richer and the poor stay poor” view of the world is in part what led to Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States.

At the end of last year, when I was visiting Nepal and India, I heard the same arguments against those governments as I heard in Santiago. The argument is this: Not only does the government do nothing for me, but the entire government class thinks only of itself. Government service is not seen as public service it is seen as a career move. A way to gain a steady job and a growing paycheck that you can actually vote to increase whenever you like.

I asked why no one protests in Nepal and India when I was there and the answer I got back was, “…it’s just not something we are comfortable with in our culture.” One middle-aged man in Santiago gave me a different explanation. Having grown up knowing what it is like to live under a dictator the people of his generation simply don’t have the courage to protest. In Chile, it took the current generation, who never experienced that level of oppression first hand, to start things off. Now they have unleashed a movement that seems unstoppable and capable of forcing historic change.

Which brings me to the current situation between the United States and Iran. It strikes me that in the Trump White House there is no feeling for the heft of history. It is quite clear that in Iran and Vietnam, President Obama was trying to put to bed the battles of the 1960’s and open new chapters with both countries. President Trump has gone about reversing all those efforts mostly out of political spite. Mostly out of the need to satisfy his base that sees anything President Obama touched as tainted. Whether this is entirely based on racism I do not know, but the fact Obama is black seems to be at least part of it.

This tendency by Trump to fight old battles is most evident with Iran. Over the last week we have learned that both the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration had opportunities to kill Iran’s top general, but did not because they were concerned about how Iran would retaliate and they wanted to avoid an all out war. President Trump, showing he is tougher than both Bush and Obama, fired away.

We are told the United States had intelligence that showed Major General Qassim Suleimani was about to launch a major attack on American interests with the potential to take many American lives. This from an administration and president who lie to us every day and have so far offered no proof of the claims. Even if the claim is true, killing Suleimani does not kill his plans.

President Trump has only a New York Post understanding of history. Just the headlines. He’s never read the articles. It’s been described by others as seeing the movie but never reading the book. In the case of the Iranian strike, I am reminded of “the Chicago way” from the movie The Untouchables.

“He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”

This is how the world works in the mind of President Trump and apparently many of those around him, but the world is not a movie.

One of the most troubling things I’ve heard in the last few days came in the form of a Tweet from the president in which he claimed the United States already has a target list if the Iranians retaliate. The president said we have 52 targets. One for each American hostage taken by Iran in 1979. I have never been in the military, but from what I know such symbolism is rarely the criteria for target selection. Only in the mind of a president concerned with image over policy would such a claim be important.

President Trump has never read any history, but he seems determined to re-write it. He would have won the Vietnam War, he would have never made a deal to put a halt to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, he would have never allowed China to develop in a way that would challenge the United States as an economic power, because he is strong and everyone else is weak.

Let’s think things through from a domestic political perspective for just a moment, since the Trump White House (and by that I mean Trump) has not. Maj. Gen. Suleimani may indeed have had a series of dastardly plans to hit American targets overseas or even here on American soil. It would be the president’s responsibility to try to stop any such effort if he could. If Iran succeeded the responsibility for the loss of American lives would be squarely on Iran. In the view of the world the United States would be seen as the victim and Iran’s behavior would prove they cannot be trusted as peaceful partners.

President Trump has now reversed that calculus. The Iranians are expected to retaliate. If they do and if any American lives are lost, the responsibility will lie with President Trump, because he — unlike his predecessors — put his own personal reputation as a world tough-guy ahead of the larger interests of the country. And when we look to other countries for help they will say in third grade language President Trump will understand, “You started it.”

For nearly four years I have been writing about the dangers of the Trump presidency. Why it is dangerous to have a man who knows so little and who thinks of every challenge as a used car negotiation is especially dangerous in the area of foreign policy. With less than a year left in his first term in office we now see reality hitting home.

President Trump has drawn his own red line and backed the United States into a deadly corner. If Iran strikes back what choice will Trump have but to escalate hostilities further? He has already vowed to hit Iran harder the next time. He has put us on a path to war against an enemy that can cause chaos for us and our allies across the globe.


*Literary reference alert.

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.