Political predictions are always a risky affair, but here’s one that can be made with complete confidence: The son of the president of Venezuela is not going to personally capture the White House.
The prospects for success with this plan are laughable, but the “threat” is real. Nicolás Maduro Guerra, whose father is Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, announced Saturday that if the United States takes military action against his country, “the rifles would arrive in New York,” and he would “take the White House.”
A U.S. attack on the Maduro regime could well exacerbate Venezuelan misery.
Maduro Guerra was speaking in response to President Trump’s Friday statement that he would not “rule out a military option” for responding to the unrest in Venezuela, because the U.S. has “troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away” and “Venezuela is not very far away.” Vice President Mike Pence doubled down on Trump’s comments Monday, saying the president has “made it very clear we will not stand by while Venezuela collapses into dictatorship, because a failed state in Venezuela threatens the security and prosperity of our entire hemispheres and the people of the United States.”
Trump and Pence no doubt mean well, because the situation in Venezuela is grave. Shortages of food and other necessities are grim and persistent. As the “Maduro diet” has taken its toll, the state has responded with price controls, corruption, and arrests. Inflation is so rampant some shopkeepers have taken to weighing bills instead of counting them. Pets are starving, abandoned to the streets by owners who don’t have enough to feed themselves. And in all this the senior Maduro’s response has been self-service, efforts to consolidate his own power by manipulating the country’s constitution and squashing public dissent.
So the White House clearly has reason to believe the Maduro regime is unsavory and its socialism inhumane. Where Trump and Pence go deeply, dangerously awry, however, is in their proposal of a U.S. military solution to this problem. “An armed U.S. intervention in Venezuela would be the worst possible response to the country’s serious crisis, and it would be another completely unnecessary and unjustified intervention that serves no American interests,” as Daniel Larison persuasively argues at The American Conservative.
Further suffering and momentum toward dictatorship in Venezuela would unquestionably be tragic, but that does not mean this is a problem the United States military can or should attempt to fix—no vital national security interests are at stake, so no military action should be authorized by Congress. At issue is not whether what is happening in Venezuela is bad, but rather whether there is any reason to believe an American invasion will make it better. The last decade and a half of foreign policy mishaps tell us there is not. Look at Iraq and Libya, where previous administrations rushed in, well-intentioned, to throw out strongmen and instead of fostering stability left the expanding chaos of power vacuums in their wake.
Contra Pence, Venezuela’s fate does not determine American security. And contra Trump, having a lot of troops in a lot of places is not an argument for starting another war of choice—quite the opposite, in fact.
For those who would argue that the threat of U.S. military intervention alone might be enough to get the Maduro regime to shape up, let me offer two points.
First, empty threats are always a dangerous game, and perhaps never are they more irresponsible and reckless than when flowing from the undisputed global superpower. If Trump and Pence are not seriously considering an attack—and the Pentagon’s report that it has received no orders in this regard suggests that may be the case—it is imprudent to speak as if they are.
And second, part of the risk here is the real potential for our threats to backfire, to make matters worse, if not for the United States than for the people of Venezuela. Already Maduro has sought to capitalize on Pence’s comments, organizing an “anti-imperialist” event to galvanize support among a population that otherwise would not give him the time of day. “Even talking about U.S. intervention is a gift to Maduro and his allies, who desperately need the distraction that it readily provides,” Larison notes.
As even hawkish commentator Charles Krauthammer, hardly a skeptic of military interventionism, argued on Fox Monday, “threatening a Latin American country with an American invasion” is “a terrible idea” precisely because “there’s a history of Yankee imperialism. It weakens our friends, strengthens our enemies.” The president of Colombia—whose shared border with Venezuela confers both higher stakes and greater expertise in this situation—said as much Monday when he warned Pence against invasion, because “every country in Latin America would not favor any form of military intervention” by the United States.
A U.S. attack on the Maduro regime could well exacerbate Venezuelan misery in the long run, giving the Maduro regime exactly the ammunition it needs to drape itself in false patriotism and steer Venezuela away from a free, peaceful, prosperous future.