A country rapidly spirals into chaos as its dictatorial leader, supported by Russia and Iran, crushes peaceful opposition. Amid a contested election, military units begin to mutiny. Regional neighbors struggle to handle the more than 3 million refugees who have flooded over their borders, and far beyond.
Am I describing Syria? No. That’s Venezuela, right now.
Venezuela is descending into chaos. The socialist regimes of Hugo Chávez and his hand-picked successor Nicolás Maduro have squandered the wealth of what was once one of the richest and most prosperous countries in South America. Quite literally millions of Venezuelans have fled, leading to a nearly unprecedented situation: a developing country with declining population.
Tens of thousands of these refugees have come to the United States, and Congress is considering giving Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans as a group. Formerly eliminated diseases have returned, and common economic goods have become scarce. Although the situation in Venezuela is awful, it had one redeeming feature as far as American policy was concerned: it’s not our fault, and it’s not our problem.
The Drumbeat for Intervention Grows
Unfortunately, American political leaders have made troubling moves recently, suggesting we could end up with boots on the ground in yet another interminable foreign civil war. President Trump, just days ago, stated explicitly that military options could be considered. Sen. Marco Rubio has called for the United States to support mutinying military personnel in Venezuela.
The administration was caught before discussing coup plans with rebel officers in Venezuela. While military intervention may not be just around the corner, the rumblings of the next Iraq or Syria are there. Alas, even as the crisis deepens, there has been precious little actual discussion of what role the United States should, or should not, have.
The present crisis is not primarily humanitarian. Venezuela has been collapsing for years and we knew to keep away. Millions of refugees didn’t provoke the United States to consider military intervention. But now, according to the president, military options are on the table! So, what changed?
Earlier this month, after a sham election in May condemned by virtually every international observer except North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia, Maduro stole another term as president. Rather than accept this quietly, a courageous young leader named Juan Guaidó stepped up and announced that he would accept the mantle of interim president if called upon to do so.
Maduro’s thugs arrested Guaidó shortly after, but he doesn’t appear to be in custody any longer. While the bold 35-year-old’s declaration could have vanished into the ether, instead he has become a cause celebre: the decision to arrest him may have even enhanced his fame. Guaidó’s “interim presidency” has now obtained the recognition of the Organization of American States, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and, crucially, the United States.
Confusingly, however, Guaidó has not actually claimed the presidency: he’s just said he would accept it. If he actually claimed the role, he would almost certainly be imprisoned by Maduro’s security services.
In other words, as a matter of official recognition, the United States believes that the legitimate president of Venezuela is Guaidó, yet the actual office is being held by Maduro. The only thing lacking for it to be a full-blown crisis of legitimacy is that Guaidó has not technically claimed the presidency as his own. This kind of instability is a recipe for civil war.
Where Do Army Loyalties Lie?
The crucial question until now, as always in authoritarian regimes, has been whether the army would remain loyal to Maduro. It was widely thought that it would. However, within the last few days, some limited army mutinies appear to have begun.
January 23 is a national holiday, and Guaidó’s supporters are planning a mass demonstration in the capital, Caracas. Maduro has weathered such mobilizations before, but if this one is accompanied by cracks in his support in the security services, and if Guaidó’s allies can seize actual offices of government, then the outcome could be different.
This is where American intervention comes in. We recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president, and Maduro as an illegitimate interloper. If it comes to violence between these two parties, should we intervene? Should we perhaps act pre-emptively and strike against Maduro, guaranteeing Guaidó a smoother path to power?
Some interventionists would say yes: that the United States military should respond “decisively.” The arguments for why will be familiar: dictatorships are bad, America stands for democracy and liberty, Maduro is exporting crime and violence throughout the region, etc. But at the end of the day, what’s missing is any compelling argument for how Venezuela threatens the United States.
While President Trump has ludicrously suggested that Venezuela is as threatening as North Korea, despite having no nuclear weapons and an army just one-tenth as large, nobody has yet explained how it serves American national security interests to expend taxpayer dollars and possibly risk American lives by intervening there.
A policy mistake in Venezuela could be disastrous. An already massive refugee crisis could worsen appreciably, resulting in millions more refugees spreading throughout Latin America and, ultimately, to the United States. That will obviously create more political tensions about immigration in the United States.
If Venezuela devolves into a civil war, it could claim tens of thousands of lives. Like Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, the war could be fueled by porous borders, non-state actors, foreign powers like Russia, and money from oil and drugs. These are all terrible outcomes. But, for the most part, they do not threaten the United States.
There’s always a migrant crisis somewhere, and Venezuela’s neighbors have mostly accommodated refugees. Crime and drugs are nothing new, either; Venezuela has been exporting them for a long time. At the end of the day, there is simply no serious case to be made that Venezuela threatens the safety and security of the United States today in any way that has not been true for a decade.
The United States has been quite free from Venezuelan attacks over the last decade, and it cannot be said that Venezuela now represents any serious threat to American security. Thus, the largest mistake the United States could make would be letting American soldiers be killed in a pointless war.
So Should We Just Ignore The Crisis In Venezuela?
This isn’t to say nothing should be done about Venezuela. It’s simply to say that we shouldn’t be the ones doing it. South America has plenty of countries that can help––Colombia and Brazil together have militaries five times as large as Venezuela, and Venezuela’s military is itself divided. If the Venezuelan opposition needs military assistance, theyshould look to friendly regional neighbors who have recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president.
Latin American countries have decried American “imperialism” for more than a century: we should give regional leaders a chance to step up and clean their own house. If the Venezuelan opposition, in concert with regional partners, would like to invite the United States to provide air support, then President Trump could ask Congress for authorization.
Beyond military options, we should of course exhaust our peaceful tools. Sanctions on Maduro and his allies should be ratcheted up. The Venezuelan oil industry should be targeted. There should be efforts at restricting international arms sales to Venezuela. The personal travel of government officials should be interdicted. The vast majority of the world that has refused to recognize the Maduro regime has plenty of tools to pressure Maduro and his top military allies.
But without express invitation from a legitimate government that has an actual military to do its heavy lifting on the ground, the United States should steer clear. We have no business sacrificing American lives and resources in somebody else’s civil war.
As the chorus of voices calling for intervention is likely to grow in the next few weeks or months, it is vital that level heads speak up and remind the nation that invading other countries has not usually gone very well. We should not do it. We should not intervene in Venezuela — unless there’s already a viable military partner there whose victory we can expedite.