Picture it. The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit has just landed in La Guaira and is now marching on Caracas, The Dwight D. Eisenhower Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is docked a few miles offshore and a no-flight zone is being enforced over Venezuela by the U.S. Air Force. Venezuelan forces in Táchira, Mérida and Zulia have surrendered without resistance shortly after American troops crossed the Colombian border and were welcomed by crowds gathered in public squares waving the seven star Venezuelan flag. Nicolás Maduro’s whereabouts are unknown but he’s presumed to have left the country a few hours after the U.S. Navy intercepted Diosdado Cabello on a small boat heading to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
This is the kind picture most people come up with when they imagine a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela. Now that the biggest protest movement the country has seen in years has petered out, leaving only increased authoritarianism in its wake, some in the opposition are dispirited enough to actually think it’s a good idea. After all, if kids with cardboard shields couldn’t do it, surely the gringos can, right?
Hanging heavily over this scenario is the legacy of the 1989 U.S. Invasion of Panama, which some mis-remember as a quick and painless military triumph. Lost in this account are not just the entire civilian neighborhoods that burned down during the fighting and the hundreds of innocent civilians killed, but the structural differences between Panama back then and Venezuela today.
For one thing, Panama came handily pre-invaded: over a dozen U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force facilities were up and running in the Panama Canal Zone in 1989 which, lest we forget, was technically U.S. sovereign territory. The U.S. could, and did, airlift soldiers directly from the States into Howard Air Force Base, a fully operational base a stone’s throw away from the capital. Everything was already there: fuel depots, radar, even a submarine base.
Venezuela they’d have to invade from scratch, a vastly different proposition.
If kids with cardboard shields couldn’t do it, surely the gringos can, right?
The political differences are just as stark. Unlike Maduro, who still counts on the fanatical support of some 20% of the people, General Noriega was genuinely loathed by a population he couldn’t hope to melt back into. There was no Panamanian La Piedrita, no 23 de Enero to hide in.
It’s important to realize that, in Venezuela’s case, the full-on invasion scenario is a fantasy: unfeasible on diplomatic, political, and geostrategic grounds. Invading Venezuela would be a radical move with no plausible justification in International Law that would threaten Cuban, Chinese and Russian interests. It would require Colombian help, which will not be forthcoming, and Brazilian help as well. It would need congressional support, which hasn’t been sought or built, and support from the Pentagon, which would worry that starting a regional war-of-choice would divert U.S. military assets and capabilities away from far more pressing national security theaters: the Korean peninsula, the Middle East, Afghanistan, even Eastern Europe.
In other words, an all-out invasion pipe-dream…or a pipe-nightmare, depending on your point of view.
But the President of the United States talked about military options, not about an “invasion.” So what other options would he have?
A somewhat more realistic — though still deeply problematic — option would be a much more limited engagement: a series of attacks from the air, likely using cruise missiles, that would put no U.S. servicemen’s lives on the line. These could range from a handful of missiles designed to “send a message” to a sustained series of barrages designed to cripple the Venezuelan Armed Forces (FANB).
A move like this would lack U.N. Security Council support —China and Russia would surely veto— and the diplomatic consequences for the U.S. would be considerable. The potential for collateral damage is significant enough to make the whole concept hateful — one wrong set of GPS coordinates and poof, there goes half your family. No sane Venezuelan could want this. Worse, it’s not even clear how a war from the air would really degrade the regime.
The President of the United States talked about military options, not about an “invasion.” So what other options would he have?
You can, of course, take out the FANB from the air. But FANB is only one piece of the problem. The regime has lots of people with guns outside FANB supporting it. They’re more militant, more ideological, less disciplined and less worried about casualties than their FANB counterparts. Taking out FANB and leaving the regime to rely solely on armed civilians is taking the country out of the frying pan and into the fire.
But the relative ease with which FANB could be decimated without putting any U.S. lives at risk points to the truly intriguing military option, one that could badly destabilize the regime without firing a shot: what if Trump bluffs?
Think of this from the point of view of a fat, corrupt Venezuelan Army General. Just a few days ago you were standing next to Nicolás Maduro as he announced to the country how the recently named Comisión de la Verdad will bring an end to all political dissent. You clapped, just like you always do when Maduro takes another step along his not-so-long path to dictatorship. Later that night, you got home and drank your usual 18-year old scotch with your usual cocaine trafficking proceeds. Life was good.
Then the President of the United States gives a televised speech, and life stops looking so good. Flanked by the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he says the United States has determined it is against its vital interest to allow a new Marxist dictatorship in Latin America. He announces he’s ordered the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Group to sail south, and says the United States will take all steps necessary to restore constitutional order in Venezuela.
How do you think you’re sleeping at night now, General? What do you think your WhatsApp group with other FANB Generals feels like now? How long until you start questioning your own revolutionary spirit as you start regretting all those pictures clapping fir Maduro? What, if it came down to it, would you really prefer, dealing with Maduro yourself, or facing a sustained U.S. air assault?
The truly intriguing military option: one that could badly destabilize the regime without firing a shot: what if Trump bluffs?
An actual U.S. military intervention isn’t even needed. That’s surplus to requirements. What’s important is that FANB feels in its bones that the tomahawks could start flying at any moment.
Most of the officers who remain loyal to the government do so because they are either as deep in shit as the guys they defend or because the corruption network created by chavismo is just too lucrative for them. This isn’t about deep ideological commitments, it’s about a calculation of costs and benefits. But the U.S. can radically alter that calculation without firing a shot.
If there’s one thing any poker player knows is that if you’re going to bluff, you need to commit.
Mike Pence’s recent Latin American tour was quite committed. Our country was in the spotlight of most press conferences and meetings Pence held. The American VP even addressed the humanitarian issue and its implications in a particularly personal way while retelling the stories he heard from Venezuelan families who fled to Colombia recently; making clear that the Venezuelan crisis was a real concern for the United States, no matter how clumsily President Trump may manage the issue.
Now that democratic institutions have been butchered, Venezuela’s remaining options are horrible. The menu includes open-ended urban insurgency, a U.S. oil embargo that sets off a humanitarian catastrophe, outright civil war or just turning into the next Libya. The one, narrow opening we have for some sort of a soft landing involves FANB remaining cohesive as it pushes for a peaceful transition. It’s desperate, but that’s our best choice.
So please, Mr. Trump, don’t send the Marines…just make sure these FANB assholes think you will.