Crisis in Venezuela

By Tanner Weigel, Staff Writer

The crafting and execution of foreign policy is not an easy gig. In the United States, the actions of the current and previous two Presidents certainly speak to the complexities of international relations. And where these leaders’ intentions may have been noble, the realities of war and diplomacy have no time for lofty rhetoric.

George W. Bush had immediate and broad support for his response to the 9/11 attacks, which included rooting out Al-Qaeda havens in Afghanistan. However, upon focusing rhetorically on a broad and nebulous “war on terror,” the Bush administration quickly found itself bogged down in the ill-fated Iraq War. Convincing Americans to send their loved ones to fight specific terrorists was one thing. Convincing them to send their loved ones to engage in regime change was something else entirely. In executing an aggressive foreign policy that prioritized a swift and overwhelming use of force, President Bush’s foreign policy team favored unilateral action and was quick to bemoan international organizations, such as the U.N.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama (R) discussing the Syria crisis in 2013 with advisors. Courtesy of Reuters/Pete Souza/White House

Enter Barack Obama. With the United States weary of war, President Obama’s call to end the United States’ involvement in never-ending Middle Eastern conflicts was well received. After so much blood and treasure spent on these wars, Obama invoked the mantra of “don’t do stupid shit” (using such language in private, of course). Disentangling the U.S. military from so much action abroad was not easy, though (the U.S. still has a presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan). And even where troops were withdrawn, drones could continue the fight. Obama certainly drew ire when he declared a red line whereby the U.S. would be compelled to act against the Assad regime in Syria should it use chemical weapons, only to withdraw that commitment. But he also oversaw more U.S. involvement in Libya (with problematic results reminiscent of Iraq), even if the burden was shared with NATO allies. In short, President Obama wanted to engage more closely with the international community, but struggled to push the U.S. past its tendency to involve itself as the principal actor in multiple foreign entanglements.

We now arrive to Donald Trump. Where do we even start? Whether it be the Paris climate accords, NAFTA or the Iran nuclear deal, President Trump came into office promising to back out of any international agreement that did not benefit the United States. President Trump has been called a “transactional” figure, who sees foreign relations in realist terms and wants to make sure the U.S. is on the winning side of any deal. While he has bemoaned U.S. interventionism, he is also quick to remind adversaries of the United States’ immense capacity for military destruction (one recent tweet somehow evoked both sentiments). He belittles traditional allies, while cozying up to strongmen and dictators. And let’s not even start on China. The back-and-forth is enough to give anyone whiplash, and is certainly a contributing factor in why advisors, like Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, have found it impossible to continue in their roles.

Juan Guaidó, Venezuelan Assembly leader, recognized by many as interim President. Courtesy of New York Times

It is at this juncture that we arrive at the current and ongoing crisis in Venezuela. The U.S. has been joined by an increasing number of nations in recognizing Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim president, calling for Nicolás Maduro’s ouster. But the situation is tenuous, as the military, despite defections, still generally stands by Maduro. If Maduro is determined to hold on to power by force, then it would necessarily require force to topple him. To be sure, the Maduro government, like the Chavez regime before, has mismanaged the Venezuelan economy, allowed rampant corruption to take hold, and committed human rights abuses. Scores of Venezuelans are fleeing their country and starvation is rampant. But the question remains: what is the U.S. interest in actually intervening militarily?

The prospect of intervention is real, as President Trump, no matter his noninterventionist inclinations, is surrounded by advisors and others who have never met a war they didn’t like (i.e., John Bolton). Florida Senator Marco Rubio has taken on an oversized role in shaping the President’s perspective on Venezuela, and is supportive of the U.S. taking any action necessary to ensure a restoration of democratic institutions in that country. What a frightening image to imagine American troops being deployed straight into Caracas!

This is the reality: Venezuela is a sovereign nation. And there is little doubt that Maduro is an illegitimate leader who derives his power from corrupt institutions and sham elections. But does this mean the U.S. should be compelled to force Maduro out? Or come to the aid of the opposition in the case of civil war? What is the endgame? If there is a compelling reason to send military forces to Venezuela, then there must be buy-in from the international community, and, at least for the sake of the United States, the U.S. Congress must approve actions in a convincingly bipartisan manner. These conditions are necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure a focused mission that has a clear plan for Venezuela after Maduro. And in the end, let’s not forget that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

And so, instead of all of this, I say to President Trump, go with your noninterventionist gut. Exhaust all other diplomatic options. The U.S. does not need to open up yet another military front.  

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