When the bugle calls, Peter Hitchens once wrote, the conservative instinct is to rally around the tattered banner. Nowhere was it truer than the last few days, with Venezuela teetering on the brink of civil war. For all practical purposes, Juan Guaido, the suave Macronist liberal whom the West recognizes as the legitimate president of the oil-rich republic, was on the way to topple the Maduro dictatorship, flanked by dissident military men. But that didn’t work out.
What transpired since then is dodgy, but it appears the dissident military leaders and bureaucrats chickened out. In what looked like a replay of the failed coup attempt against Turkish despot Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the forces loyal to Maduro started to attack protesters. Foreign Policy reported that “the lack of any major military figures publicly casting their lot with the opposition should worry the opposition leader. He [Guaido] says he has military support behind the scenes, which could be critical to a democratic transition, but he has not produced solid evidence of it.”
The Atlantic confirmed the chaos, saying that “despite administration officials’ ominous mantra that ‘all options are on the table’ in Venezuela, they appear to have little appetite for taking military action,” adding that the Pentagon was not ordered to prepare for any military intervention.
One Wrong Move Would Spell Chaos for Venezuela
This is by far the closest to an actual foreign policy crisis that Trump administration has faced yet. It is also the one for which a single misstep could cause total chaos. Naturally, there were prominent (and predictable) voices calling for an intervention. While Maduro is indeed a despotic ruler, we need to think hard before suggesting any further misadventure. Consider the questions one needs to ask before another military intervention, which will inevitably result in a regime change and a civil war.
First, what strategic interests are there for the United States in Venezuela? Venezuela is an oil-rich country, but it is also an economic basket case. There’s no unity in the political class, the military is pretty solidly behind Maduro, and no large-scale defections or popular uprisings are spontaneously happening that look likely to topple Maduro anytime soon. In fact, the regime is propped up by Cuban forces.
Consider the similarity to Iraq immediately post-intervention, and the entire Baathist military and bureaucracy disbanded and pushed underground, fueling insurgency with the support of Iran. In other words, a regime change is a recipe for insurgency and civil war.
Second, what are the intervention plans, and what about mission creep? Would we have an exit strategy and timeframe? There is, so far, no clear coherent plan adopted by the administration, nor is it even possible, because of the reasons mentioned above. Dictators often leave the country and retire with their millions, but that is when they see the situation is hopeless. In this case, the situation isn’t.
The same reason Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi chose to fight ’til the bitter end is the same reason Maduro would also not quit, and instead go down fighting a long civil war. He has no incentive to quit, and nowhere to retire with his millions. For good or for bad, he enjoys the support of almost half his country and most of his military forces, who would also go down with him but not before bogging Americans in another quagmire. There is naturally no short-term military solution to this conundrum.
What Would We Do After Toppling Maduro?
The American military is, of course, fully capable of toppling Maduro and installing Guaido. But then what? At this point, there are no signs of large-scale military defection. Nor are there signs that the local powers, like Brazil and Colombia, are planning military action. This means toppling Maduro would require American armor and boots, a long civil war, and subsequent stabilization mission.
Our experience in regime change and nation-building in the last 15 years should give us pause. The only place where anti-Americanism is traditionally higher than the Middle East but remains dormant is in Latin America. As the entire continent organically and slowly moves right-wing, any heavy-handed approach would turn the clock back to its default Marxist radicalism.
The Monroe Doctrine is still active, and America is well within her rights to intervene if any other great power approaches and forms a base that can change the balance of power of the region. But 100 Russian military advisors don’t change the balance of power. It is not the Cuban missile crisis redux, and neither Russia nor China currently has any cross-continental power projection will or capability.
As Dan DePetris wrote recently, “The propensity in Washington on both sides of the aisle to take ownership of the Venezuela problem and fix it with an American-imposed solution must be tamped down in favor of the prudence and restraint so often thrown by the wayside. Emotion should not dictate policy.”
Venezuela is a humanitarian concern, not a strategic concern, a key difference that needs to be considered. It’s easy to sympathize and offer diplomatic support, aid, food, and even weapons. It’s entirely another thing to intervene militarily, and force regime change.
As I wrote before, the two local powers of Brazil and Colombia are the two most allied to the United States, and have conservative governments who oppose a Cuban satellite in Venezuela, and growing migration that is flooding their countries. If American diplomacy were really prudent and capable, they would buck-pass the intervention and security burden to local allies, and provide diplomatic and material support, but without any U.S. troop involvement. Let Brazil and Colombia topple Maduro and stabilize Venezuela, with America’s blessing—but without American guns.
John Quincy Adams said, “America is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.” President Trump would do well to remember that.
He stands within the cusp of history, of being the first American president in more than a quarter-century to not have started an open-ended and costly so-called humanitarian intervention. He should trust his original electoral instincts and aspire to make that his legacy. There are genuine areas of threats to focus on instead, especially in Europe and Asia. Venezuela, behind the buffers of Colombia and Brazil, is not an existential threat to the United States.