The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Confidence in the Trump administration’s Venezuela policy should not be high

Spoiler alert: They’re winging it.

Members of the Venezuelan National Guard in Urena, near the border with Colombia, on Feb. 24. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts was wary of the Trump administration stumbling into a conflict involving U.S. Embassy personnel in Venezuela. Credit where it’s due, the risk of that particular aspect of the crisis escalating has died down. That said, after four weeks the military remains solidly behind Nicolás Maduro, which was clearly not what the Trump administration expected.

So what happens next? After reading Jonathan Swan’s account in Axios about how Trump has formulated his approach to Venezuela, I am utterly petrified about the possible answers to that question.

Think of Swan’s story as a data point supporting Elizabeth Saunders’s argument that staffers with agendas can manipulate uninformed presidents, particularly on issues not central to them. According to Swan, the key factors driving Trump on Venezuela are “instincts, personal relationships, aggressive advisers, and political opportunism.” To elaborate:

  • Vice President Pence got the issue on Trump’s radar in 2017 by getting the wife of a Venezuelan political prisoner to meet Trump in the Oval Office. 
  • Trump knows some Venezuelan expats from his golf club in Doral, Fla.
  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tells Swan: “He also takes some of this stuff personally. The fact that Maduro and others have reacted the way they have [with their fiery rhetoric about Trump]. ... Ultimately there comes a point, for this president, where he become personally invested in it ... he becomes an enemy, and then he goes after you pretty hard.” 
  • Trump’s political team thinks this will play well in Florida.

If these are the wobbly foundations for Trump’s approach to Venezuela, I’m stunned it has gone as well as it has to date.

My concern is that what had been a humanitarian disaster because of to a kleptocratic ruler is about to devolve into something more violent. Bloomberg News’s team explains what happened over the weekend:

[Juan] Guaido and his supporters — which includes the U.S. and some 50 outside nations — had amassed food and medicine at border points into Venezuela from Colombia and Brazil. The aid was meant both to salve a once rich nation brought to poverty under the autocratic Maduro and to show Guaido, 35, proclaimed rival president, as legitimate heir and, in some sense, savior.
But Maduro used his still-loyal military, the nation’s most powerful institution, to crush the effort. As many as four people were reported killed and 200 wounded. Meantime, about 100 soldiers defected. Little to no aid crossed the border. ...
Guaido, who is head of the National Assembly, which named him president after Maduro stole national elections last year, faces problems of his own. He holds virtually no power inside Venezuela, and is now in Colombia and faces a challenge to return after Maduro banned him from travel.

The Associated Press reports that Guaidó “has called on the international community to consider all options to resolve Venezuela’s crisis, a dramatic escalation in rhetoric that echoes comments from the Trump administration hinting at potential U.S. military involvement.” Furthermore, “a close Guaido ally, Julio Borges, the exiled leader of congress who is Guaido’s ambassador to the Lima Group, was even more explicit in urging a military option. ‘We are going to demand an escalation of diplomatic pressure ... and the use of force against Nicolas Maduro’s dictatorship,’ he said Sunday.”

If there was a competent administration running American foreign policy, a case might — might — be made for ratcheting up the pressure to include multilateral military action. That Maduro is a kleptocrat who has wrecked his country should not be in dispute. The existence of civil society groups calling for outside intervention matters. Guaidó is not the second coming of Ahmed Chalabi; he has legitimate claims. And the United States is not alone in this. There is a broad coalition backing pressure against the Maduro regime.

That said, the American Conservative’s Daniel Larison is not wrong when he notes, “In almost every case, the more directly and forcefully the U.S. has interfered in the political affairs of another country in our hemisphere, the worse it has been for the affected country.” More importantly, and I really can’t stress this enough, this is not a competent administration. There is zero evidence that any policy principal has thought any of this through beyond “getting rid of Maduro would be awesome.”

In another story, Swan writes that, “Nobody has had more influence over Trump’s Venezuela policy than Pence. National security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Sen. Marco Rubio also play pivotal roles, but from the first days of the Trump presidency, Pence has dominated the issue.” But as David Sanger and Edward Wong reported in the New York Times, Pence managed to foul up Pompeo’s diplomatic efforts in Warsaw to contain Iran. That same story notes the limits of Pompeo’s diplomatic pull in Latin America. As for Rubio, he’s been tweeting super-helpful threats to Maduro:

Given how matters have played out, analogizing Venezuela to Libya might be the dumbest thing Rubio has ever done in foreign policy. What should terrify readers is that Rubio is the most knowledgeable person advising Trump on Venezuela.

The past month has not gone according to plan for the Trump administration in Venezuela, but it has not been a disaster, either. I hope this is true for the next month as well, but I fear the administration is stumbling toward war.