American presidents — and all political leaders — inevitably face trade-offs between conflicting priorities. In Venezuela, President Trump is stuck between a policy rock and a preference hard place, caught between a democratic and humanitarian demand to side with the Venezuelan people and the tough reality that there is very little he can — or really wants — to do.
The losers? Invariably the good people of Venezuela. They are victims of “President” Nicholás Maduro and his regime’s continual and cynically systemic use of food and energy resources to keep political friends and allies happy while shunting and starving his opponents. Millions have chosen to leave and live in exile as refugees, while others head to the Venezuelan streets to topple Maduro. They bear the brunt of simmering tensions and escalating violence.
Interim President Juan Guaidó earlier this week called men and women into the streets for “Operación Libertad.” Images of protesters run over and injured by troops and gangs loyal to Maduro create an immediate sense of a national crisis. The numbers of new martyrs for the cause of Venezuelan freedom and democracy are growing, increasing global outrage and fueling loose administration talk about American military options.
This week’s premature and now seemingly fizzled “final phase” of the Venezuelan opposition to oust Maduro was fed and nourished by Trump’s own assertive National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Florida Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio added to the sense of urgency, while Trump’s political instincts led him to understand a stiffening anti-Cuban and anti-Maduro position could help to build a stronger and more loyal Florida voter base.
American rhetoric about democracy and freedom continued to escalate at the same time that the expected Maduro regime defections failed to materialize on May Day. Bolton ominously says that, “All options remain on the table;” Pompeo says that “military action is possible.”
Here’s the reality: Even though Trump wants Venezuelan regime change and his subordinates keep pushing for “all options,” the president is keenly aware that U.S. military intervention is not a credible option. It’s not even a good bluff. Even if greater control over Venezuelan oil and American regional hegemony is a likely outcome of regime change in Caracas, it is nearly impossible for Trump to commit U.S. troops to making that happen.
This is Trump’s conundrum.
POTUS is unlikely to send troops for two reasons: First, he is stuck with the “Trump Doctrine” that recognizes the sanctity of sovereignty. According to this policy, what happens domestically in any nation is that country’s business. He has articulated this at every turn, defended it in multiple settings and circumstances, and has paid the political price for enshrining its primacy in cases ranging from the Jamal Khashoggi killing to Kim Jong Un’s unchallengeable leadership and unrequited love. The Trump Doctrine justifies both Russian President Vladimir Putin’s and China’s President Xi Jinping’s weak-sauce electoral legitimacy.
Second, Trump wants to end foreign entanglements and not start new “stupid” military conflicts. He clearly articulated this during the campaign and in office.
These two factors — an aversion to American military engagement and a privileging of nation-state sovereignty — combine to give authoritarian leaders and regimes confidence that they can do what they want without consequences as long as they keep it within their borders.
American voters soon will figure out that the tough talk on Venezuela does not match up with the weak response of the administration’s policies. Bolton is not the president. He cannot force Trump’s hand. Rubio and Scott, while sincerely articulating the human-rights case for involvement, might also try to appeal to the president’s transactional political sensibilities and argue that Venezuelan oil reserves and Florida voter reserves are there for the taking. Trump is unlikely to be moved, and America’s military will also advise that it keep its powder dry.
Trump has not personally overreached on Venezuelan regime change. He has let Bolton and Pompeo go down that path while he simply articulates his support for Venezuelans’ democratic aspirations. As a result, if Guaidó crashes and burns, Trump keeps his political distance and options, weakens an otherwise powerful and blustering Bolton and maintains the latitude to quietly make dirty deals with an ever-meddling Russia to resolve the situation peacefully.
Images of protesting Venezuelans run down by armed personnel carriers in the streets is a sickening sight. They drive any compassionate person toward a call to action and a need for resolve against Maduro’s repressive and reprehensible regime.
Unfortunately, recent history tells us there is not much America can do to effect easy regime change. The bottom line: The Venezuelans are on their own.
Markos Kounalakis recognizes the difficult choices leaders must regularly make and researches foreign policy options as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.