A few months ago, the Trump administration and most members of America’s foreign policy community had high hopes that the fall of Venezuela’s radical left-wing government was imminent. The United States and more than 50 other countries promptly recognized Juan Guaidó, leader of the National Assembly, who claimed to be the country’s interim president, replacing Nicolas Maduro.
The United States and its allies clearly assumed that the Venezuelan people would quickly dislodge Maduro from power. He was already highly unpopular due to economic mismanagement and increasingly autocratic behavior. But Maduro has not been deposed, and the Trump administration needs to reassess its policy.
The anticipated uprising against Maduro failed to materialize in January as Venezuela’s military remained loyal to him, despite U.S. inducements and pressure to switch sides. Guaidó and his followers then tried to revive the rebellion’s flagging fortunes, organizing anti-regime demonstrations on April 30 and May 1. After a few days, the new offensive fizzled as well. As the summer solstice approaches, Maduro remains in power. The insurgent faction that the United States regards as Venezuela’s lawful government has yet to control any meaningful portion of the country. Guaidó himself appears to be an increasingly marginal, even pathetic figure, and the opposition to Maduro shows growing signs of disunity.
U.S. leaders are reluctant to admit that their policy has failed. Instead, the excuse-making machinery is working overtime. After the disappointing outcome of the spring demonstrations, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even asserted that Maduro was on the verge of fleeing to Cuba when the Kremlin assured him of continued assistance from Russian and Cuban security forces operating in the country.
Nevertheless, some governments that had followed Washington’s policy lead now appear to be hedging their bets. When Guaidó’s diplomatic envoy to Brazil arrived in that country, the Brazilian government ostentatiously snubbed her. This was a significant action given that not only is Brazil an especially important country in the hemisphere, but its current right-wing government has been openly hostile toward Maduro.
Any government facing a probable, high-profile policy failure is always tempted to escalate rather than cut losses. The Trump administration appears to be considering that course. It already has intensified economic sanctions against Venezuela, including targeting the beleaguered country’s oil sales. More worrisome, Trump himself once flirted with the option of a direct U.S. military intervention. It is not comforting that John Bolton, a notorious hawk, is the president’s national security adviser. Trump’s decision to appoint Elliott Abrams as a special envoy in charge of Venezuela policy heightens escalation worries, given that Abrams has been a staunch advocate of regime-change wars against left-wing governments since his days in Ronald Reagan’s administration.
An especially important quality for wise policymakers is knowing when to acknowledge that they have made a miscalculation and terminate a failing venture. It is hard to absorb the embarrassment and sunk costs, but the alternative is almost always worse.
Escalation typically turns small losses into big ones. Lyndon Johnson’s decision to expand the U.S. military role in Vietnam is the classic example of investing lives and funds to chase a fundamentally flawed policy. The seemingly endless war in Afghanistan is another case of letting false pride and wishful thinking perpetuate a foolish course of action.
The Trump administration can still avoid a similar debacle in Venezuela. Even a decision to tighten economic sanctions would be unfortunate, since it would needlessly victimize ordinary Venezuelans who already suffer horribly from the Maduro government’s incompetence. Intensified U.S. economic coercion also would replicate the counterproductive policy Washington pursued toward Cuba for nearly six decades and that Trump has now largely restored.
Launching a military intervention in Venezuela would be an even worse idea. For all of his flaws, Maduro not only seems to enjoy the military’s continued support, but he also has left-wing militias to back his rule. Although U.S. forces would certainly overwhelm such defenders initially, loyalist elements could form the core of an extended resistance. We should have no desire to replicate our bitter Iraq experience closer to home.
Most recent press reports indicate that Trump now has little enthusiasm for direct U.S. military involvement in Venezuela, despite lobbying by Bolton and other hawkish advisers. Hopefully those reports are true and the president will avoid any remaining inclinations of his own for such intervention. It is imperative for him to adopt a more prudent course.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books on international affairs, including Gullible Superpower: U.S. Support for Bogus Foreign Democratic Movements (2019). The views expressed are the author's own.