There’s a very interesting AP story rolling around today in which it’s revealed that last year President Trump mortified members of his cabinet and several Latin American leaders by floating the idea of a military invasion of Venezuela to depose Nicolas Maduro and his Cuban Communist puppet regime in that beleaguered tropical paradise.
As a meeting last August in the Oval Office to discuss sanctions on Venezuela was concluding, President Donald Trump turned to his top aides and asked an unsettling question: With a fast unraveling Venezuela threatening regional security, why can’t the U.S. just simply invade the troubled country?
The suggestion stunned those present at the meeting, including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, both of whom have since left the administration. This account of the previously undisclosed conversation comes from a senior administration official familiar with what was said.
What’s most striking about the lede of the story is the characterization of the question as “unsettling.” We’re talking about a nation in which middle class people are diving in dumpsters for food, whose capital city is the most dangerous place on earth due to the violent crime largely perpetrated by the regime, whose economy has descended into atoms and who poses a security threat to its neighbors due to (1) refugees in Colombia (not to mention its longstanding promotion of the FARC guerillas seeking to overthrow the Colombian government) and (2) military threats it has made to next-door Guyana in the wake of massive offshore oil discoveries there.
For eight years the Obama administration did everything it could to ignore the growing instability and human misery in Venezuela. Now Trump wants to explore options to put an end to the suffering and it’s “unsettling?”
There is more.
In an exchange that lasted around five minutes, McMaster and others took turns explaining to Trump how military action could backfire and risk losing hard-won support among Latin American governments to punish President Nicolas Maduro for taking Venezuela down the path of dictatorship, according to the official. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.
But Trump pushed back. Although he gave no indication he was about to order up military plans, he pointed to what he considered past cases of successful gunboat diplomacy in the region, according to the official, like the invasions of Panama and Grenada in the 1980s.
The idea, despite his aides’ best attempts to shoot it down, would nonetheless persist in the president’s head.
The next day, Aug. 11, Trump alarmed friends and foes alike with talk of a “military option” to remove Maduro from power. The public remarks were initially dismissed in U.S. policy circles as the sort of martial bluster people have come to expect from the reality TV star turned commander in chief.
But shortly afterward, he raised the issue with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, according to the U.S. official. Two high-ranking Colombian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing Trump confirmed the report.
Then in September, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Trump discussed it again, this time at greater length, in a private dinner with leaders from four Latin American allies that included Santos, the same three people said and Politico reported in February.
The U.S. official said Trump was specifically briefed not to raise the issue and told it wouldn’t play well, but the first thing the president said at the dinner was, “My staff told me not to say this.” Trump then went around asking each leader if they were sure they didn’t want a military solution, according to the official, who added that each leader told Trump in clear terms they were sure.
Eventually, McMaster would pull aside the president and walk him through the dangers of an invasion, the official said.
Taken together, the behind-the-scenes talks, the extent and details of which have not been previously reported, highlight how Venezuela’s political and economic crisis has received top attention under Trump in a way that was unimaginable in the Obama administration. But critics say it also underscores how his “America First” foreign policy at times can seem outright reckless, providing ammunition to America’s adversaries.
Again, how reckless is it, really, to discuss U.S. intervention in Venezuela? Even the piece, by Joshua Goodman, doesn’t promote Trump’s conversations as an impending military adventure, and the leaks producing this story involve discussions a year ago.
Venezuela is worse off now than it was a year ago. Nobody disputes that. Inflation in that country is now over 25,000 percent – meaning the currency is literally worth less than the paper it’s printed on. That’s led to a 30 percent rise in infant mortality in the last year, a 50 percent rise in severe child malnutrition and a 76 percent rise in malaria infections. More than 1.5 million refugees have left the country, which had a population of 31 million in 2016.
It’s literally a country falling apart, and it’s only a matter of time before Venezuela becomes an unmistakable failed state a la Somalia or Zimbabwe. And the communist regime in Venezuela, along with its Cuban masters, are busy promoting their revolution elsewhere in Latin America.
Under such circumstances, how is it “reckless” for an American president to float the idea of a military solution? Again – Trump hasn’t ordered up plans for an invasion. He’s discussed the idea with members of his government and with leaders of neighboring countries.
And he doesn’t happen to be the only one doing so, by the way. Back in January, Harvard professor and former Venezuela government official Ricardo Hausmann wrote a fairly convincing column laying out the case for a “coalition of the willing” to intervene in that country to throw out the Maduro regime and install something else…
With all solutions either impractical, deemed infeasible, or unacceptable, most Venezuelans are wishing for some deus ex machina to save them from this tragedy. The best scenario would be free and fair elections to choose a new government. This is Plan A for the Venezuelan opposition organized around the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica, and is being sought in talks taking place in the Dominican Republic.
But it defies credulity to think that a regime that is willing to starve millions to remain in power would yield that power in free elections. In Eastern Europe in the 1940s, Stalinist regimes consolidated power despite losing elections. The fact that the Maduro government has stolen three elections in 2017 alone and has blocked the electoral participation of the parties with which it is negotiating, again despite massive international attention, suggests that success is unlikely.
A domestic military coup to restore constitutional rule is less palatable to many democratic politicians, because they fear that the soldiers may not return to their barracks afterwards. More important, Maduro’s regime already is a military dictatorship, with officers in charge of many government agencies.
The senior officers of the Armed Forces are corrupt to the core, having been involved for years in smuggling, currency and procurement crimes, narco-trafficking and extra-judicial killings that, in per capita terms are three times more prevalent than in Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines. Decent senior officers have been quitting in large numbers.
Targeted sanctions, managed by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), are hurting many of the thugs ruling Venezuela. But, measured in the tens of thousands of avoidable deaths and millions of additional Venezuelan refugees that will occur until the sanctions yield their intended effect, these measures are too slow at best. At worst, they will never work. After all, such sanctions have not led to regime change in Russia, North Korea, or Iran.
This leaves us with an international military intervention, a solution that scares most Latin American governments because of a history of aggressive actions against their sovereign interests, especially in Mexico and Central America. But these may be the wrong historical analogies. After all, Simon Bolivar gained the title of Liberator of Venezuela thanks to an 1814 invasion organized and financed by neighboring Nueva Granada (today’s Colombia). France, Belgium, and the Netherlands could not free themselves of an oppressive regime between 1940 and 1944 without international military action.
The implication is clear. As the Venezuelan situation becomes unimaginable, the solutions to be considered move closer to the inconceivable. The duly elected National Assembly, where the opposition holds a two-thirds majority, has been unconstitutionally stripped of power by an unconstitutionally appointed Supreme Court. And the military has used its power to suppress protests and force into exile many leaders including the Supreme Court justices elected by the National Assembly in July.
As solutions go, why not consider the following one: the National Assembly could impeach Maduro and the OFAC-sanctioned, narco-trafficking vice president, Tareck El Aissami, who has had more than $500 million in assets seized by the United States government. The Assembly could constitutionally appoint a new government, which in turn could request military assistance from a coalition of the willing, including Latin American, North American, and European countries. This force would free Venezuela, in the same way Canadians, Australians, Brits, and Americans liberated Europe in 1944-45. Closer to home, it would be akin to the U.S. liberating Panama from the oppression of Manuel Noriega, ushering in democracy and the fastest economic growth in Latin America.
That’s a fairly workable scenario with historical precedents echoing some of what Trump was talking about a year ago. It’s half a year on from when Hausmann wrote about it. Things are only getting worse as the Maduro regime starves and shoots its people in what should be one of the richest countries on earth.
And at some point things will become so bad that it will be a stain on America’s national escutcheon to stand by and do nothing as a tyrannical communist regime brutalizes its people into a 21st-century Holodomor. The “reckless” Trump was at least trying to explore options to avoid such a result while the smart set in our government and those of our neighbors do nothing.
What might be an addition to Hausmann’s suggestion is that the U.S. military engage in a humanitarian mission to provide food relief in Venezuela. How to do that is a question – setting up refugee camps over the border in Colombia and Guyana is one option; a better one might be for sanctuaries protected by a peacekeeping force to be set up inside Venezuela itself, though that might well involve the need for a military operation establishing them.
But any objective view of Venezuela points to the inescapable conclusion that the current situation cannot continue and must devolve into major change of some kind. Things won’t get better with this regime in place, and the sooner it is gone the more lives can be saved.
One wonders whether the characterization of American intervention in Venezuela as “unthinkable” or “reckless” isn’t driven by ideology. After all, the Chavez and now Maduro regime has been something of a darling among the less-intelligent members of the radical Left in this country, and a Trump administration assisting to take down that regime certainly would seem apocalyptic to the Sean Penns, Danny Glovers and Bernie Sanderses of the world. Politically, American intervention which leads to a democratically-elected constitutional government replacing that regime in the way Panama was transformed after Manuel Noriega’s ouster would be catastrophic for the Left.
And maybe that’s the best reason of all for the “reckless” Trump to consider sending in the Marines.