When newly elected Brazilian President Bolsonaro visited President Trump this week, one of the subjects was the crisis in Venezuela. First stop was an unprecedented visit to the CIA for a "briefing" on Venezuela. Then it was off to a visit with Trump, where the US president promised at the least a path to NATO membership for the South American country.
This was an interesting response to a country that had made it clear a month ago that they wanted no part in an invasion of its neighbor Venezuela.
Obviously, many nations are looking at the US to solve the problem. However, instituting a peaceful transfer of power to a democratically elected regime is much harder than some neocons think (Iraq and Afghanistan are good examples).
But the US is clearly upping the pressure on Venezuela’s leaders. Last week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered the last of the US diplomats out of Venezuela, saying their presence was a “constraint” on US policy toward the country. The wording seemed intended to convey the idea that the US is about to launch military action to place the Washington-backed, Juan Guaido to the presidency. Was it just bluster, designed to intimidate? Or is the Trump Administration about to invade another country?
While US Administrations engaged in “regime change” have generally tried to mask their real intentions, this attempted coup is remarkable for how honest its backers are being. Not long ago the National Security Advisor to the president, John Bolton, openly admitted that getting US companies in control of Venezuelan oil was the Administration’s intent.
Then there is the suspiciously-timed nationwide power failure which devastated Venezuelans.
But, if all of this is an American attempt to overthrow Venezuela’s government, it isn’t going well.
According to media reports, Vice President Mike Pence is angry with the Venezuela coup leader, Juan Guaido, because he promised the whole operation would be a cake walk. Guaido said hundreds of thousands of protesters would follow him to the Colombian border to “liberate” US aid trucks just over the border, but no one showed up. So, a story was crafted that Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro’s thugs burned the aid trucks to prevent the people from getting relief from their suffering. Now it appears that this story was false.
Obviously, many are asking if the US is behind the take-down of Venezuela’s power grid. It would not be the first time the CIA pulled such a move, and US officials are open about the US goal of making life as miserable as possible for average Venezuelans in hopes that they overthrow their government.
Congress has to this point been strongly in favor of President Trump’s “regime change” policy for Venezuela. Sadly, even though recent bipartisan American foreign policy of interventionism has proven disastrous (from Iraq to Libya to Afghanistan, to Syria) both parties in Congress continue to insist they will get it right this time. The only opposition is to insist that Trump get congressional approval first.
So is President Trump about to attack Venezuela? At a recent US House hearing, one of the expert witnesses testified that such an invasion would require between 100,000 and 150,000 US troops, going up against maybe three times that number of Venezuelan troops in a country twice the size of Iraq.
But, is a massive invasion of Venezuela the only option? Not really. Here are the options that Trump has:
Massive American Invasion. Contrary to some of the experts, the US doesn’t need a massive force to effectively control Venezuela. The US has a mobile, well supplied, professional army with decades of combat experience. The Venezuelan Army is poorly supplied, poorly fed, dispirited, and, except for some pro-Maduro forces, unlikely to put up a fight.
If the US invaded with its airborne divisions and a Marine amphibious force (and token South American forces to give it an “international” look), it could take the key areas of Venezuela in less time than it took to invade Iraq. Of course, the problems would be the same as those faced by US forces in post-invasion Iraq. Pro-Maduro forces could head to the hills and jungles and carry out a guerilla war for years.
The political fallout from such a move would be disastrous. Even countries that oppose Maduro and the current regime would condemn the US. Domestically, it would give Democrats a target for the 2020 presidential campaign.
Clearly, this isn’t the best option.
Special Forces to train and Assist Venezuelan Anti-Government Forces. This could be called the “Syrian Option.”
The US could find and support a guerrilla force that could eventually overthrow Maduro. However, as we saw in Syria, the challenge is finding a force that isn’t politically radical but has the will to win a civil war.
As we saw in Syria, US Special Forces would not only train the rebels, they could engage in clandestine combat missions and even direct covert air attacks by American aircraft.
The problem is that the US could end up with a policy failure just as we see in Syria, where Maduro remains in power, thanks to the intervention of American enemies like Russia, Iran, and China.
Send Arms and Humanitarian supplies. This is the current policy. It is also the American policy that led to success in the Soviet invaded Afghanistan.
However, the US faces the same problem as faced in sending Special Forces – trying to discover who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. In the case of Afghanistan, the US supplied arms to people like Bin Laden, only to face him after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan.
Economic Sanctions. Economic sanctions do not lead to the overthrow of governments as witnessed by Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. They will not cause the overthrow of Maduro.
The problem facing the US in Venezuela is that, despite the privations, the Venezuelans have failed to rise up in sufficient force to overthrow the current government.
Currently, the US is trying to impose sanctions that threaten the government but limit the damage to Venezuelans. For instance, Citigroup is planning to sell tons of Venezuelan gold that was used as collateral for a loan. The excess, which should be returned to the Venezuelan government, will be deposited in a New York bank instead.
Maduro has shown that he intends to stay in power, and he has enough military support to ignore the large demonstrations in the streets of Caracas. In that case, the political opposition like Guaido need more than the support of several countries to achieve a change of government. They need a military force of Venezuelans with the will to oppose the current regime.
Although the Venezuelan military has experienced some low level of desertions, these soldiers haven’t appeared to coalesce into an opposition army. Nor does it appear that Guaido has the charisma to inspire the creation of an opposition army. And, no matter how much the US may want it, the Maduro regime will remain in place unless the opposition reaches a critical mass of military power to force Maduro to give up and leave the country.
This limits the options for the US. A massive American invasion could force the regime change, but the political cost would be great, and the chances of long-term success would be the same as Afghanistan and Iraq. Halfway measures offer the same problems as seen in Syria.
The only route to success is to find a Venezuelan leader that has the political savvy and charisma to unite the Venezuelan people to overthrow Maduro, but no one has stepped or found yet, it may not appear at all.
In other words, real regime change goes through Venezuela, not Washington.