As if the United States didn’t have enough on its plate, the risk of a bungled response to the terrible situation in Venezuela is on course to rise considerably.
At a time when political debates are increasingly nationalized and national debates are waged on the basis of abstract principle, it will be hard to muster the careful, prudential judgment needed to react wisely. If things continue to sour, the Venezuela question could draw together all of America’s prevailing political crises into a single perfect storm.
Venezuelans are suffering under the cruel and unjust rule of a despotic ideologue — so much so that much of Latin America has come out in unison against the maleficent regime.
“Peru summoned top diplomats from the region to discuss Venezuela in Lima, Peru’s capital, where 12 nations condemned the ‘rupture of democratic order’ in Venezuela and said they would not recognize any action taken by the constituent assembly,” as Reuters recently observed.
According to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, whose creature the so-called assembly is, his enemies, including Peru’s former Wall Streeter president, are once again rehearsing a kind of capitalist yankee imperialism bent on denying Venezuela its sovereign right to handle its own affairs. Meanwhile, inflation is over 100 percent, food shortages are the norm, and talk of civil war and a refugee crisis is in the air.
How to respond? According to the school of thought associated with liberal internationalism, the U.S. and its allies could find themselves faced with a so-called “responsibility to protect” Venezuelans being crushed by their own regime. According to neoconservatives, U.S. interests and values may dictate that the Maduro regime should be punished or driven from power. Traditional realists may counsel a hands-off approach or something more Kissingerian in its covert muscular pursuit of a more friendly administration.
Venezuela could easily expose ideological fissures running through the left and right. Socialists are reluctant to come out swinging against Maduro, while liberals find it hard to tolerate dictatorship in the New World while decrying the malign rule of Putin, Erdogan, and other strongmen. Conservatives, for their part, have watched anxiously, feelings torn, as president Trump has vaguely threatened a military response — not unheard of for Republican foreign policy in Latin America, but not particularly well thought out either.
Complicating matters still further is the rise of an newly organized racialist right in the U.S. Over 40 percent of Venezuelans self-identity as white or of European descent. Many Americans have no memory of a full-blown breakdown in civic order in a country with such a large Caucasian population.
It remains to be seen how such a catastrophe in the internet age will emotionally or politically alter Americans’ opinions of the right course of action — or the degree of risk worth adopting in order to act. Liberals could find, agonizingly, that Venezuela meets all the classic criteria demanding a humanitarian military intervention, but refuse to act because of support coming from right racialist groups.
Finally, even worse, a potentially fierce debate has already begun to stir around the overwhelming share of key administration positions that president Trump has staffed with generals. Civil-military relations have been on a downward trajectory for decades, and any unpopular decision to become involved in Venezuela could exacerbate that trend at a moment of great strain on the legitimacy of government.
Not only are many Americans just uncomfortable with policy being set by so many powerful military figures with such close relationships. Others, who initially seemed to welcome the generals as a curb on the excesses or inexperience of the president, have now become angry that the brass continues to serve in the administration. Still other Americans could become incensed if it appears that civilians in the White House manage to overrule the generals serving in the administration and order the Pentagon to intervene rashly or recklessly in Venezuelan affairs.
There are now so many ways that the legitimacy of the administration and the workings of government could be called into question and vocally opposed, it is hard to imagine what response to a full crisis in Venezuela would avoid any of them.
As a result, even greater pressure will be placed on those tasked to carry out whatever decision may be triggered by a civil war or humanitarian crisis in and around Caracas. One temptation will be to just follow orders. Another will be to do the minimum necessary to evade the worst kinds of political punishment or military disaster. Some may wish to quietly sabotage or countermand certain orders — a dangerous and high-stakes game that could do irreparable damage in the short and long term. Others will feel compelled to go “all in,” risking everything on a decisive plan, rather than risk a full measure of criticism or failure for indulging in half measures.
In all these instances, too, prudential judgment will be at an institutional disadvantage — bad news in a national, regional and global moment when the level of uncertainty has made it so difficult to predict the consequences and reverberations of various policy options.
Such an inauspicious setting, of course, suggests that the best way to avoid disaster for the U.S. may be to sit back and let it unfold in Venezuela. But in times of deep dissatisfaction and perceived impotence, the call to do nothing may be resented most of all.
James Poulos is a columnist for the Southern California News Group.