Events in Venezuela are moving at breakneck speed. Just one month ago Nicolás Maduro was sworn in for another presidential term, the result of a rigged election last May.
Over fifty countries and the vast majority of Venezuelans rejected his election as illegitimate. Just ten days ago, jailed opposition leader and torture victim Leopoldo Lopez and his compatriots put in play a constitutionally-backed gambit to install a legitimate interim president, Juan Guaidó, thus offering 28 million hungry and suffering Venezuelans their best shot in 20 years at ridding themselves of the scourge of ' chavismo'.
But for some, both inside and out of Venezuela, events are not moving fast enough.
They are clamoring or quietly advocating for a U.S. military invasion of Venezuela along the lines of the 1989 Just Cause operation that saw Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega removed from power and brought to the United States in handcuffs. Noriega was subsequently tried and convicted for drug trafficking, and then served time in France before being returned to Panama in 2011, an irrelevant old man who died in prison six years later.
Most – but certainly not all - American, European, Latin and even Panamanian observers look back at that episode now with 20/20 hindsight and consider it to have been a prudent use of limited force to restore democracy and human rights in a friendly country and compel a tyrant to face justice.
So the desire for a quick military end to Venezuela’s two-decade, slo-motion tragedy is understandable, and there are certain legitimate circumstances under which the use of force would be justifeid - such as an attack on the U.S. embassy or the spilling of U.S. blood in Venezuela. Absent those conditons, an invasion would be thoroughly counterproductive and should be categorically and explicitly rejected by the interim president and his team, not to mention the Trump administration.
Why? Let me count the why’s:
Venezuela ain’t Panama. The U.S. had its Southern Command Headquarters located in Panama in 1989. This served as an important logistical and intelligence forward operating base for the paratroopers and others sent in to take down Noriega. Additionally, President Bush had bipartisan congressional support and only gave the order to invade after Noriega gave a speech in which he promised to “float dead American bodies down the Canal.”
A day later his troops killed an American servicemember, Lt. Robert Paz. None of these threats or conditions exist in Venezuela.
Past is Prologue. Before Panama, the United States had a long history of military intervention in the region, most recently in the context of a Cold War proxy conflict in Central America with the former Soviet Union and its vassal state, Cuba. While the American-backed Salvadoran and Honduran troops and the Nicaraguan Contras won the tactical battles, and the Soviet Union lost the Cold War, the U.S. suffered a tremendous loss of prestige for decades afterwards as a result of its unintentional failure to police its anti-communist partners.
The last quarter century of U.S. congressional oversight and intense human rights instruction incorporated into Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative show that multiple Republican and Democratic governments have been self-correcting policymakers. But old prejudices die hard in a region where memories are stubbornly persistent.
A U.S. invasion now would validate Vladimir Putin and Nicolas Maduro’s predictions. It would allow anti-American professors in public universities around the hemisphere to smugly tell their young students, “I told told you so.” And when the humanitarian aid distribution is slowed, or unintentionally given out to a chavista neighborhood instead of an opposition neighborhood by the Americans, they – the U.S. troops – will become the bad guys over night.
Not Every Problem Is a Nail; fortunately, we have more than just hammers. Most important, the threat to the U.S. homeland is neither clear nor present to warrant an invasion. Americans have experienced little direct effect on our security or prosperity from chavismo for 20 years. While devastating for ordinary Venezuelans, for Americans, and until recently most of Venezuela’s neighbors, 21 st Century Bolivarianism was more akin to a chronic and annoying illness than an imminent fatal heart attack.
In fact, the regime’s recent weakening shows that bilateral and multilateral sanctions, international pressure, popular discontent and a genuinely democratic and momentarily united opposition from within have all rendered the cancerous cells of chavismo weaker, not stronger. The treatment is working.
Now is not the time for the United States to sneak into patient Maduro’s room and suffocate him with a pillow. He’ll become another left-wing icon like Chile’s Salvador Allende or Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz, and the U.S. will be convicted in the Latin American court of public opinion as an uninvited and self-interested killer.
The Pottery Barn Analogy: Former Secretary of State Colin Powell famously recognized that “if you break it, you bought it.” The world’s greatest, most efficient, and powerful military breaks stuff really well. But the United States as a whole of government doesn’t do Phase IV, or post-conflict operations, very well. In Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and even in Panama, after the euphoria of seeing bad guys removed dissipated, invading U.S. forces were not uniformly perceived as saviors by those they liberated from dictatorial oppression.
This was certainly the case in Iraq. The cost in U.S. blood and treasure, not to mention the thousands of Iraqi lives lost, has been siginificant and led to the longest war in U.S. history. The Bush 43 'neocons' - who coincidentally include Trump's National Security Advisor, John Bolton and Venezuela Special Envoy, Elliott Abrams - miscalculated the threat of weapons of mass destruction as well as the enormity of the task of reconstruction.
Guaidó, the leaders of the anti-Maduro political coalition such as Leopoldo Lopez, and their DC-based emissary, the very capable Carlos Vecchio, must now judge carefully if they really want to ask Uncle Sam to come in and break the china in Miraflores Palace ... because they too will own it for posterity.
Both the democratic opposition leaders of Venezuela and the United States, as well as the Lima Group, are to be commended for their multilateral efforts to date to peacefully and constitutionally unseat Maduro. Venezuelans inside Venezuela – not in Miami or in Washington DC – are in the lead, as they should be.
The last thing either Trump or Guaidó need at this moment is to blink before the myopic pressure of a few who have failed to learn from history and think that putting U.S. boots on the ground is the panacea to the problem of Venezuela.
As Bush 41, perhaps the cagiest of all recent presidents with regard to foreign affairs, might say, “Don’t do it. Wouldn’t be prudent."