When it comes to foreign policy, it’s never clear whether American presidents have forgotten past failures or they have studied them closely in order to duplicate them. Whatever the case, Donald Trump’s aggressive policy toward Venezuela has many precedents that suggest pessimism is in order.
At a speech in Miami on Monday, he called on the Venezuelan military to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro, the leftist strongman whose socialist policies have turned the oil-rich country into a riot of economic disarray. Trump’s speech came on the heels of new U.S. economic sanctions meant to help topple the regime.
The administration has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has proclaimed himself the legitimate president following rigged elections last year. It has set a deadline of Saturday for the Maduro regime to allow trucks to bring food and medicine over the border from Colombia.
Trump threatened members of Venezuela’s military with retribution if they remain loyal to Maduro. He held out the prospect of U.S. military intervention, saying, “All options are open.” In January, national security adviser John Bolton was seen holding a notepad with the words “5,000 troops to Colombia.”
In this effort, the administration is not drawing on successful interventions of the past. It’s taking the blooper reel as a guide. We have ample experience to indicate this approach wouldn’t work and could lead us into disaster.
Barack Obama provided a lesson in the perils of assuming that a firm U.S. push will bring down a besieged autocrat. During the heady days of the Arab Spring, as protests roiled Syria, he announced, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” That was eight years ago, and Assad had the last laugh on Obama, who was faulted for failing to back up his words with forceful action.
Obama’s faith that vocal support for the opposition would turn the tide was unfounded. Trump is courting a similar error. Should the Venezuelan military ignore his plea and Maduro keep his grip on power, the administration would have to choose between Obama-like ineffectuality and military action.
The latter, of course, involves the prospect of shedding American blood in an effort to restore democracy to a country of no strategic importance to the United States. As we discovered in Somalia (1993) and Lebanon (1983), even small-scale missions can turn shockingly bloody, exacting a far higher price than the American people are prepared to pay.
The administration’s demands may do more to help Maduro than to hurt him. Latin Americans have long, unhappy memories of U.S. domination and meddling in the internal affairs of our neighbors, and Trump is hardly a president to allay suspicions about our motives. Just the opposite: He bears a resemblance to corrupt populist caudillos, who have so often impeded democracy in the region. Venezuelans may figure he wants to seize Venezuela’s oil as he thinks we should have done with Iraq’s.
Americans may not recall that in 2002, George W. Bush endorsed a coup against Maduro’s immediate predecessor, Hugo Chavez, which removed him from office — for all of 47 hours. He then regained power and held on to it until his death in 2013.
If Maduro holds on, the administration may have to fall back on economic pressure and diplomatic isolation. If you want to gauge how well that is likely to work, consider the case of Cuba’s Communist government, which has withstood Washington’s hostility for nearly 60 years.
That regime also fended off the 1961 U.S.-supported Bay of Pigs invasion, mounted by exiles bent on overthrowing Fidel Castro. Despite the widespread assumption that the revolution would perish with him, it survived his 2016 demise.
If Maduro does fall, though, there is hardly a guarantee of a happy outcome. Obama’s decision to use air power against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi helped bring him down, but in the aftermath, Libya fell into a chaotic civil war that is still going on.
Even in the worst of places, regime change is an unreliable formula for peace, prosperity or democracy.
Trump ran on an “America first” theme, promising that the U.S. would stop jumping into foreign crises and conflicts in the name of spreading our values. But when a socialist despot sows turmoil in our hemisphere, he falls back on the old-fashioned American policy of wielding a big stick.
We can’t say we haven’t seen this movie before. There is always the slim chance that the campaign against Maduro will succeed. If it fails, the consequences will be unpleasant, but they won’t be surprising.