The headline in the New York Times was sensational — the story underneath it, less so. “Trump Administration Discussed Coup Plans With Rebel Venezuelan Officers,” it blared, suggesting the umpteenth Ugly American intervention was being cooked in a smoky backroom in Caracas.
If anything, the opposite was the case. The story detailed how Venezuelan military officers had sought contact with American diplomats to seek their support for a plot to overthrow Venezuela’s anti-American dictator, Nicolás Maduro. In three different meetings, American officials sat and listened to the plotters, but reached no agreement with them and offered no support. The coup plot fizzled, as a series of arrests set off an internal purge, with dozens of suspected plotters ending up in military jails where, it is widely believed, they will have been tortured to get them to incriminate others.
The Times story is significant but not for the reasons many people seem to think it is. Far from a demonstration of U.S. aggressiveness toward Venezuela, it shows the way career officials in the Trump administration are keeping the peace against the expressed wishes of an aggressive commander in chief.
It has been widely reported that for President Trump, mounting a military strike against Maduro is something of an idée fixe: a point he keeps coming back to repeatedly, no matter how unanimous his advisers are in opposition to it.
Trump’s instinct is clearly to strike out against Maduro. But the national security establishment, both in the State Department and in the Pentagon, is uniformly opposed to this terrible idea. These officials oppose it because it would undo three decades of diplomacy rebuilding the United States’ credibility as a hemispheric partner following a century of Monroe Doctrine interventionism, and would destroy dozens of carefully built relationships with governments up and down the region, all of which are adamantly opposed to military action in Venezuela.
They oppose it because it would divert U.S. military assets to a risky adventure at a time when far more pressing national security risks are piling up on the United States’ doorstep — including a few made worse by stray presidential tweets. They oppose it because a decade and a half after the Iraq debacle, and seven years after setting out to liberate Libya and creating a failed state instead, the entire concept of spreading democracy through the barrel of a gun is thoroughly and rightly discredited.
What the Times story showed was the kind of restraint that the national security establishment has learned to prize, all the more as the president showers it with contempt. Aware that the Venezuelan military men asking them for help were likely corrupt, or involved in drug trafficking or human rights abuses (or all three at once), they did the sensible, cautious thing: They sat, listened to them, collected the intelligence and made sure not to get involved. Justifiably worried they were being set up as part of a regime propaganda move, they steered clear of a scheme they judged was likely to fail.
Thank God for that.
The reality is that staging a coup against Maduro is, and will remain, virtually impossible. Venezuela’s military officer corps is probably one of the most intensively spied-on bodies on earth. At Maduro’s behest, the government works very closely with Cuba’s intelligence agency, G2, which has agents embedded in the military, ministries and agencies. Trained by the East German Stasi and by the KGB, Cuba’s G2 continues to carry the torch for the kind of intensive communist surveillance operation most often seen in films such as Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others.” It is practically impossible for Venezuelan military officials to communicate with one another freely enough to hatch an effective plot. Proof of that is that the Venezuelan plotters’ key ask of the Americans, according to the Times, was precisely for encrypted radios.
The scheme was obviously unworkable: If you can’t communicate with people freely enough to plot with them, you can’t possibly distribute hundreds of very suspicious radio sets to them, either. Had they somehow succeeded in that, they would merely have created a situation where counterintelligence agents would simply have to locate the sets to identify the conspirators. It was as though, facing the threat of the Cuban cat, the Venezuelan plotters had asked the United States to supply a bell — never stopping to ask, in practice, if they would be able to put the bell on the cat.
The plan hatched by the known criminals who wear epaulets in Venezuela never made any sense. U.S. officials saw that clearly, and refused to touch it with a 10-foot pole.
It’s hard for me to see where the actual scandal lies in all that.