War Stories

Military Intervention in Venezuela Would Be a Catastrophe

We’re seeing an alignment of forces similar to what we’ve seen in the Middle East. That’s not encouraging.

Venezuelan soldiers take part in a military exercise.
Venezuelan soldiers take part in a military exercise in Puerto Cabello on Sunday. Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters

The conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt said on Meet the Press on Sunday that a nice little war in Venezuela would “bring us together”—a laughable remark, except that President Donald Trump has been musing about sending troops there since his early days in office and as recently as two weeks ago.

Certainly, Venezuela is a ripe candidate for what used to be called “humanitarian intervention.” In the past five years, under the corrupt, repressive rule of its fraudulently elected president, Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela—once among South America’s most prosperous nations—has descended into misery: Its economy has shrunk by half, inflation approaches 1 million percent, health care and other services have crumbled, food is a scarce commodity, nine-tenths of the people are impoverished, and many—estimates range from 2 million to 4 million—have fled to neighboring countries.

Trump raised the stakes on Wednesday when he formally recognized Juan Guaidó, the democratically elected president of Venezuela’s National Assembly and the leader of the anti-Maduro movement, as the interim president of the country. In an unusual move for an administration ill-disposed to consult with allies, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo persuaded the leaders of other nations in the hemisphere—including Canada, Brazil, Peru, and Colombia—to follow suit.

But now what?

Venezuela’s top military officers are still backing Maduro—who, no coincidence, has given them perks of wealth for their support. Russian President Vladimir Putin has done the same, denouncing the recognition of Guaidó as a “destructive” act of outside interference that “blatantly violates basic norms of international law.” China, Turkey, and Iran joined Putin in his support for the status quo.

And so we see an alignment of forces, similar to what we’ve seen in the Middle East, replicated in the Western Hemisphere. The domestic politics behind Trump’s move also give off a whiff of neo–Cold War dynamics. The New York Times reported on Saturday that Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, from Florida, has been the main force rallying other politicians, and leaning on Trump, to do something about the chaos in Venezuela. Rubio, whose constituents include many Cuban exiles, also led the calls for fiercer pressure on the Castro regime before—and, to some extent, since—Barack Obama opened relations.

Shannon O’Neil, the chief Latin America specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted, in an email, the “striking parallels” between the past movements against Castro and the current movements against Maduro—“the same set of actors, the same set of approaches.”

Still, although a few neighboring states have followed Trump in recognizing the opposition leaders, it is unlikely that any of them would support, much less join, a military intervention. The spectacle of American troops on Venezuelan soil would raise memories of “Yankee imperialism” across Latin America and could even bolster support for Maduro.

Let’s say the U.S. military could oust Maduro from power. Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, is perched on the northern coast of the country. If Trump ordered the Pentagon to come up with a plan, one could imagine warships dispatched to the Caribbean, launching airstrikes against Maduro’s “command and control targets” and landing Marines on the shores.

But this would almost certainly be only the first step of a long occupation. Venezuela is a large country—twice as large as Iraq and only slightly less populous. Let’s say much of the Venezuelan military could be wooed over to the opposition’s side; Guaidó has been holding talks with some officers, and the Venezuelan military attaché in Washington recently defected. The rest of the military might still stay put with Maduro. We could be wading into—and to a large extent, prompting—a civil war. And this leaves out the 1.6 million members of an armed civil militia, whose pro-Maduro leaders say they are poised to repel an “invading imperialist force.”

In short, war is not the way to go—but that leaves several courses of action on the table. Stepping up sanctions, against Maduro and his entourage, could have an impact. Prying away the military, even offering key officers a better deal under the new regime, could make the regime go wobbly. Good old-fashioned diplomacy, including talks with Russia, China, and Turkey, is worth trying. None of those countries’ leaders have a vital interest in propping up Maduro, and it’s unlikely that they’d want to tangle with the United States in the Western Hemisphere just to keep him in power. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, quotes a “senior Canadian official” who, after speaking with the Kremlin, said that the Russians were “looking to find a house for Maduro in Cuba.”

Whatever Trump does here (and it looks like he’s going to do something), it’s important that he doesn’t follow his preferred M.O. of jumping in, blowing up some stuff, declaring victory, and jumping out. Venezuela is a mess, and even if Maduro’s ouster comes fairly peacefully (say, if the Russians do find that house in Cuba), the place is likely to turn messier. Someone will have to restore services and stability; something will have to be done about those armed militias. Aid and expertise will have to flow to the ministries in Caracas; sanctuaries will have to be found for the millions of exiles.

The tragedy of Venezuela is far from over. Its repair will require a prolonged effort by lots of agencies from lots of entities that have more interest in doing this sort of thing and more talent at doing it. Trump should keep a very low profile. It’s unclear whether he’s capable of doing that.