The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
In August, U.S. President Donald Trump said that the United States was considering using military force to resolve the crisis in Venezuela. His announcement was quickly condemned by the United States’ allies in Latin America and the Caribbean as reckless and counterproductive. Yet there are some, mostly in the Venezuelan exile community, who still insist that a U.S. military intervention to remove the dictatorship of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro would be worth the cost.
Not since the United States invaded Panama in 1989 had a U.S. president threatened to use force for political ends in the Americas, and for good reason. There are no longer any military challengers to the United States in the region. Today, the Pentagon focuses on helping Latin American governments dismantle drug trafficking networks, deal with insurgents, and respond to natural disasters. It does not plan military interventions in the region, although it certainly could, if ordered to do so.
Restoring Venezuela’s democracy is a job for the country’s citizens.
If the military were to make such plans for Venezuela, policymakers would need to answer a few important strategic questions. First, they would need to lay out the political goals of the intervention. When states use or threaten military force, their objectives are usually straightforward: they tend to seek either a shift in policy or regime change. In Venezuela’s case, that might mean pressuring the Maduro government to recommit to the rule of law and to enter into a serious dialogue with the opposition, or removing it from power entirely. But could achieving those goals through force undermine more important U.S. objectives in the Americas and beyond?
The short answer is yes. Fighting in Venezuela could quickly escalate, drawing the United States into an expensive, long-term occupation. Even if that did not happen, an intervention would sour the United States’ relationships with its partners in the Western Hemisphere and diminish Washington’s influence there. To make matters worse, using force against Venezuela would undermine the U.S. military’s other commitments, straining its finances and drawing its assets away from problems far more important to the United States’ security. It is unlikely that Trump and those who support an intervention understand these costs.
The good news is that the United States and its partners in the region have not yet exhausted their diplomatic options. The solution to Venezuela’s crisis lies within that country—and the United States can help, without its military.
YOU BREAK IT, YOU OWN IT
There are three ways that the United States could use force against Venezuela: through coercion, a surgical intervention, or an occupation. Each could open the way for escalation, and each could lead to unintended consequences. Conflicts rarely unfold in the way their planners expect.
Coercion involves making a show of force to intimidate a state into changing its behavior. That show of force has to be credible, convincing the target that it will be punished if it does not act differently. In the case of Venezuela, sending a U.S. destroyer to the southern Caribbean Sea would not clear that bar, since Caracas would probably perceive it as only a symbolic threat to the regime. To convince the Maduro government to negotiate with the Venezuelan opposition and restore the rule of law, Washington would probably have to deploy an aircraft carrier and one or two destroyers to the region—perhaps the same ships that fired missiles at a Syrian government airfield in April.
A show of force could ultimately lead to a years-long military occupation.
Then again, that might not work. If it didn’t, Washington would have to follow through on its threat, lest it look like a paper tiger. By striking key security and communications centers from the air, perhaps with B-1 bombers, the United States could damage the Maduro government’s ability to communicate and repress its people. This would require extra U.S. manpower, in areas from intelligence to logistics. One purpose of such surgical strikes could be to convince the Maduro government to change its behavior. But the strikes could also seek to encourage a military coup against Maduro, led by officers who want to avert a massive U.S. military intervention.
Surgical strikes would sow chaos in Venezuela, setting off violent clashes among the country’s competing blocs and perhaps leading to the collapse of the state. Washington would then have just one option: a full-blown invasion, aimed at installing a new government and restoring stability. Overpowering Maduro’s loyalists and policing the aftermath would take a force of around 200,000 people—20,000 more than the U.S.-led coalition sent to Iraq soon after the invasion of that country. U.S. troops would have to stay in Venezuela until stability returned and legitimate, competent authorities took power. If the United States were to destroy the Venezuelan government, it would be responsible for rebuilding it, and that could take a long time.
Because a show of force could ultimately lead to a years-long military occupation, U.S. officials must not even consider threatening Venezuela unless they are ready to go all the way. If Washington proved unwilling to escalate, its friends and enemies would take it as a sign that they should neither trust nor fear the United States.
THE PRICE OF INTERVENTION
It is hard to say how many lives and how much money would be lost in a U.S. intervention. But the numbers would not be immaterial, especially if the United States invaded Venezuela and then sought to stabilize it.
Nor is this all. Using force in Venezuela would redirect the United States’ attention and power from issues more important to its security and place an unnecessary burden on its overstretched military. The U.S. defense budget will probably increase only marginally in the year ahead, and the Pentagon is busy managing operations in areas from Iraq and Syria to West Africa and the South China Sea. As a conflict on the Korean Peninsula grows more likely, it will only grow busier. If North Korea or Iran believed that the United States was preoccupied with an operation in South America, those states might take risks they otherwise wouldn’t, threatening U.S. interests in Northeast Asia and the Middle East. What’s more, by disrupting Venezuela’s oil industry, a U.S. intervention would increase global prices and weaken the governments of energy-dependent states in Africa and the Caribbean.
Finally, a military intervention would come at a steep cost to the United States’ influence in the Western Hemisphere. Colombia, Peru, and a number of other states quickly condemned Trump’s suggestion that a military option was on the table. Using force would trigger a far stronger backlash, even from Washington’s closest partners. By reminding the region’s states of the United States’ history of meddling in their affairs, Washington would lose their goodwill—and with it, the opportunity to work with them on issues that matter to everyone in the hemisphere, from dealing with transnational crime to integrating the Americas’ energy infrastructure.
A BETTER WAY
History has shown that successful democratic transitions tend to be domestic affairs. Restoring Venezuela’s democracy is a job for the country’s citizens. Foreign governments can help, but they can play only a supporting role. So far, however, the divisions within Venezuela’s opposition have weakened its attempts to secure international support for the restoration of democratic rule.
There are a few ways the United States can step up. The Barack Obama and Trump administrations, for instance, imposed unilateral sanctions against Venezuelan officials accused of corruption and human-rights violations in an attempt to create fissures within the regime that could lead it to collapse or change its behavior. (The Trump administration recently expanded and deepened those sanctions; so far, that has had little effect.) But some argue that unilateral U.S. sanctions are counterproductive. Maduro, this thinking runs, can point to the measures as examples of U.S. aggression, helping him rally at least some support from abroad and among his weary supporters at home.
That is why the United States should work with European and Latin American governments to impose multilateral sanctions against government officials and some of the groups on which the Maduro regime depends, such as the National Center for Foreign Commerce, a government body that manages currency exchanges, and Camimpeg, a military-backed energy services company. As those states do so, they should be sure to avoid restrictions that harm ordinary Venezuelans, who are already suffering from the effects of a deep economic crisis. Multilateral sanctions would isolate and pressure the Maduro regime, and the governments imposing them would have the legitimacy to squeeze the Maduro government further, if they needed to. This is an approach that the United States’ neighbors in the Western Hemisphere could endorse—but only if Washington refrains from talk of military intervention and works harder to convince Venezuela’s neighbors to get on board.
Trump’s suggestion that the United States could use force in Venezuela may have been impulsive. Governments and citizens in the Americas and beyond took notice anyway, to Washington’s detriment. The last thing the United States needs now is a military intervention that would overstretch its forces and distract it from far more serious threats to its security.