Ro Khanna is the U.S. representative from California’s 17th congressional district.
The Trump administration’s embrace of the self-proclaimed new leader of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, reeks of the highly ambitious social engineering that has been at the cornerstone of neoconservative thinking for a century. The old gang is back at it.
Vice President Pence has teamed up with national security adviser John Bolton and new special envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams to argue that it is our moral responsibility to stand up to Nicolás Maduro’s regime and support a new government that will be friendlier to us. Sound familiar? This is the same argument that led to U.S. blunders in Iraq, Honduras, Syria, Libya and elsewhere. Again and again, there is no respect for the United Nations Charter that makes it illegal under international law to seek regime change.
To be sure, Maduro is an authoritarian leader who has presided over unfair elections, failed economic policies, extrajudicial killings by police, food shortages and cronyism with military leaders. But before we intervene in another nation, we must, at the very least, pause to ask whether our efforts will make a bad situation even worse.
For decades, I have watched neoconservatives paint those who oppose their interventionism as appeasers of dictators standing in solidarity with socialists, soft on Russia, naive about terrorism, lacking moral clarity and unappreciative of America’s unique role in the world. The truth is such jingoism scares off dissent at a time when it is most needed. Progressives unfortunately seem to win the argument after the fact, decrying interventions years after the human suffering and financial costs are all too obvious. Should we not ask the difficult questions before we get ourselves into another mess?
It is theoretically possible that our gamble to recognize Guaidó will shift the military’s allegiances and begin an orderly transition to a new regime that will improve life for Venezuelans. But there is also a strong likelihood that foreign aggression will lead to chaos and bloodshed. What if the military splits and doesn’t fully align with Guaidó? There are many among the military brass who still revere Maduro’s predecessor and role model, Hugo Chávez; they could fight the opposition on the streets or even as insurgents, especially if Guaidó is seen as a beneficiary of American help.
More problematically, Venezuela is an armed nation with 1.6 million people in its civil militia. They could resent our involvement and fight foreign interference. There is a risk that overt American support for Guaidó could shore up Maduro’s base and trigger displays of military force, potentially plunging Venezuela into a civil war. Precisely because of this, the charter of the Organization of American States (OAS), to which the United States is a signatory, prohibits foreign intervention.
The Trump administration was also misguided in announcing Monday drastic new sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil firm. This is likely to accelerate Venezuela’s economic collapse and lead to a new explosion of migrants — an irony given Trump’s obsession with building a wall to keep migrants out.
Aside from ending these new sanctions, what should the United States do to address the suffering in Venezuela? Congress should pass a resolution supporting Pope Francis’ approach of a “just and peaceful solution” to the crisis. More than any political leader, the pope understands the primary risk is not which regime is in power, but a potential “bloodbath,” as he put it. Both the Venezuelan and American people will be better served by a negotiated solution between Maduro and Guaidó than by a conflict that leads to increased instability and violence.
Congress must also make it clear to the Trump administration that military action in Venezuela requires congressional authorization. If Trump does take military action without congressional authorization, I am prepared to invoke the War Powers Act to remove our troops from the conflict as I have done in the case of Yemen.
The United States should lend its support to diplomatic efforts to find some form of power-sharing agreement between opposition parties, and only until fair elections can take place, so that there is an orderly transition of power. Mexico and Uruguay have already proposed a “new process of inclusive and credible negotiations” to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Rather than defer to Pence, Bolton and Abrams, Trump should follow a policy of responsible restraint when it comes to Venezuela. Progressives need to stand up firmly to the neocons who have hijacked much of this administration.