In August last year, President Trump raised fears of a nuclear war when he threatened North Korea with "fire and fury," at a time when the idea of him shaking hands with Kim Jong Un still sounded like a bad joke.
But the same month, Trump reportedly also pondered military intervention much closer to the United States, in Venezuela. According to a report by the Associated Press, Trump repeatedly inquired at a meeting in the Oval Office whether the United States could invade the troubled South American nation.
The president later discussed the same question with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and other regional leaders at multiple occasions, according to the same report. The AP said the White House declined to comment. But a National Security Council spokesman told the news agency that "all options" remain open to "help restore Venezuela’s democracy and bring stability."
Here are some of the arguments that were likely brought forward by Trump's own staff and Latin American leaders to prevent the president from a move that would likely touch of huge regional and international backlash.
Even discussing it may play into the hands of the Venezuelan government
For months, Venezuela's cash reserves have been drying up, highly skilled workers have been fleeing elsewhere and foreign investment continues to decline. Hyperinflation has made the local currency, the bolívar, virtually worthless.
The government has blamed the economic downturn on U.S. sanctions, which have targeted Venezuelan leaders and certain other transfers. Repaying its debts has become increasingly difficult for Venezuela as exports or transactions have either been slowed down or entirely stopped.
Blaming the United States for its woes turned out to be an increasingly unsuccessful strategy for the government of president Nicolas Maduro.
But Trump's threat of a "military option" in Venezuela last year was enough to boost Maduro's government and trigger anti-U.S. protests in the capital Caracas, even though few U.S. observers took his threat seriously in absence of the details that have now emerged.
On Wednesday, responding to the AP report, Maduro repeated his previous criticism of the United States, lashing out at Washington's “supremacist and criminal vision.” The backlash bears similarities with Trump's support for Iranian opposition groups earlier this year, which was similarly used by the Iranian regime to portray opponents as being tied to unpopular foreign powers. (A poll later found that only 9 percent of Iranians thought Trump's support for the opposition helped those who were demonstrating.)
The backlash would not have been limited to Venezuela
Responding to Trump's thoughts on Venezuela last August, then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other officials reportedly argued that any U.S. intervention could easily create a backlash across Latin America. When asked directly by Trump whether they supported military action, a number of Latin American leaders apparently rejected the proposal outright, as well.
Some Latin American leaders have deepened ties with the United States in recent years, despite Trump's unpopularity in the region among voters. A military intervention could force many of those leaders to reconsider their cooperation with the United States amid public pressure.
The risks of "gunboat diplomacy"
In Venezuela itself, foreign regime change could easily result in the rise of a regime that's at least as unstable as the Maduro government. The Iraq war is the most obvious example for the challenges that arise when regimes are toppled by foreign powers.
In Latin America, CIA-supported coups or direct interventions have frequently resulted in disastrous outcomes. The 1954 CIA-supported toppling of Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz, for instance, led to the Guatemalan civil war and a succession of authoritarian juntas.
According to AP, Trump cited the invasions of Panama and Grenada in the 1980s as examples for successful military interventions abroad during his conversations about Venezuela.
However, Grenada has a population of about 90,000, compared to more than 30 million Venezuelans. And while the military intervention in Panama was indeed considered a military success at the time, it was welcomed by many locals — a stark contrast to Venezuela. Only 20 percent of Venezuelans said last spring that they felt confident the U.S. president would make the right foreign affairs decisions.
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