Tensions in Venezuela continue to escalate, following a move by Juan Guaidó, the leader of the country’s right-wing opposition and president of the National Assembly, to declare himself interim president ahead of new elections.
Guaidó was immediately backed by nearly 20 countries, including the right-wing Lima Group in Latin America, as well as European Union officials, Canada and the United States. The effort was clearly coordinated to force Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro out of power, and this will have dramatic consequences for both Latin America and the rest of the world.
Events continue to evolve rapidly, and any predictions about the outcome would be speculative. Yet it’s worth noting that in 2017, when Trump discussed the possibility of invading the country for the first time as president, he repeatedly brought up the invasions of Panama and Grenada in the 1980s. Trump’s foreign policy mirrors that of President Ronald Reagan, with Trump’s interventions in Latin America likely meant to serve a similar global strategic purpose as the wars in Grenada, Panama and Nicaragua. In the 1980s, those operations honed tactics of military invasion and social destabilization, reviving certain moral justifications for warfare, which eventually allowed the U.S. to launch later wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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In addition to wanting to secure its massive oil reserves and taking out one of the last remaining “Pink Tide” governments in the region, the Trump administration has an opportunity to use a “win” in Venezuela to experiment with new tactics of “regime change” and regain the support needed to build toward launching another major war.
It has been clear for nearly a decade that the United States has responded to failures in Iraq and Afghanistan by temporarily scaling back its ambitions for global policing. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. approached imperial policy with less blunt destructiveness. Instead, Obama chose to refocus on tactics with “surgical precision” that project U.S. interests without invasions and extended military occupation. It was “liberal” imperial power for a post-Iraq era; he favored diplomatic pressure, special operations, “smart” sanctions and drone strikes.
In the two cases where Obama had intervened more directly (apart from a failed troop surge in Afghanistan), he did so cautiously, giving aerial and logistical support to local ground forces while backing them up with diplomatic cover and covert assistance. This approach built on U.S. military successes in Kuwait and the former Yugoslavia, as well as Israeli tactics in the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars. Washington and its allies managed to topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, but failed to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, where it gradually gave up on “regime change” to focus on the war against ISIS (also known as Daesh).
Obama and his allies in the Pentagon recognized that even when more direct action was necessary to achieve their goals, there was little public support for the wars. Morale was extremely low in the U.S., and American moral legitimacy was badly damaged overseas. It is no coincidence that under Obama, the U.S. made a point of arguing for war in front of the United Nations, seeking as much global consent as possible, and justifying its military offensives based on human rights and international law frameworks.
This pattern of destructive warfare, followed by relative caution, is not new. The U.S. navigated a similar situation after the Vietnam War. Trump’s recent moves indicate that his government is trying to handle the ongoing Venezuelan “crisis” similarly to how the U.S. dealt with what was previously called the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Venezuela is now just the latest opportunity for it.
Starting in the 1970s, under President Richard Nixon, the U.S., bogged down in Vietnam, started empowering local autocrats to police their respective regions as junior partners. These included military dictators across Latin America, the King of Saudi Arabia and the Shah of Iran, who was styled as the “policeman of the Gulf” and helped put down the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman. The new global strategy reflected changes in Vietnam, where the U.S. was moving to support South Vietnamese leadership against socialist insurrection, a strategy known as “Vietnamization.” Trump’s frequent calls for world leaders to “put their own countries first,” and chumminess with authoritarian leaders like India’s Narendra Modi and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, should be seen as a throwback to this late Cold War strategy, which responded to U.S. failures on the battlefield by essentially subcontracting the tasks of global policing to trusted partners.
Similar to the past decade, when the U.S. launched interventions, it avoided direct attacks. Instead, it supplied, trained and gave diplomatic cover to local ground forces (then much more explicitly right-wing and called “freedom fighters”) like the Contras in Nicaragua, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola and the mujahideen in Afghanistan. This was in addition to other efforts, like the CIA-trained death squads in El Salvador, which Elliot Abrams defended prior to his recent appointment as a special envoy for Venezuela. When the U.S. engaged in more direct interventions, it went for easy wins that it staged as huge victories over “bad behavior” by “evil dictators” in Grenada, Panama and Kuwait.
In Grenada, in 1983, Reagan framed an extremely aggressive invasion to force the Marxist New Jewel Movement from power as freeing “a Soviet-Cuban colony being readied as a military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy,” in addition to rescuing U.S. medical students on the island. While the invasion was condemned by the UN General Assembly, it succeeded in its purpose of raising public adrenaline in the U.S., and making war seem justifiable in a hugely simplistic way that was discredited by the Vietnam War. Six years later, under President George H.W. Bush, another opportunity presented itself when Manuel Noriega annulled an election in which a U.S.-backed candidate appeared to win. Bush responded by sending 25,000 U.S. troops into Panama and later arresting Noriega, a former CIA collaborator, on drug charges.
These forays into Latin America were important because in Grenada, the U.S. public was able to once again indulge in the thrill of going to war, and in Panama, the U.S. portrayed itself as taking a stand against criminality and dictatorial excess. In Kuwait, during Operation Desert Storm, Bush built on both these “conflicts” to deliver the simulation of a perfect war, with Saddam Hussein as the devil and the U.S. leading a UN coalition as a heroic defender of democracy and freedom. Together, the three “mini wars” restored a sense of moral supremacy, invincibility and accompanying military flexibility that the U.S. lost in Vietnam.
Trump has proceeded carefully in the same direction. Obviously, he openly talks about going to war, but the reality is that until now, he has stuck to the example set by his predecessor. Trump has continued Obama’s policy of “surgical strikes,” with drones and a few botched special operations raids. Further, the U.S. continues to be a backseat driver in Yemen, where the Persian Gulf monarchies have been empowered to use a globalized military machine with heavy U.S. support.
When Trump has authorized military force similar to the 1980s and 1990s, he has either justified it with simplistic, emotional language, or by way of international law. This was clearly evident in Syria, with two strikes that were essentially just for show. In 2017, Trump launched missiles against a Syrian military airbase near Homs and condemned Assad for “killing innocent babies” during a poison gas attack. While they caused a media sensation and won Trump praise around the world, Moscow had been warned of the strikes well in advance. The missiles also didn’t even damage the runway, allowing Syrian jets to take off just a few days later.
In 2018, the U.S., U.K. and France launched a retaliatory missile strike after a gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, and similarly, stuck to the law in their statements without going any further. This shows that the Trump White House and its European allies wanted to show that something was going to be done to “punish bad behavior,” even with no further involvement. The purpose was to portray the West as a sober-minded enforcer of the liberal world order.
Now, in the early months of 2019, that narrative has bounced into Latin America, a place where National Security Adviser John Bolton has revived Bush-era framings of an “Axis of Evil” by railing against a “Troika of Tyranny” in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. It remains to be seen how Venezuela will turn out: whether this coup will be foiled by popular action, military leaders will defect, Guaidó uses his position as the supposed “legitimate president” to request an intervention by a regional “coalition of the willing” (a solution touted last year by Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann), or the U.S. actively intervenes either officially, or quietly by leaning on active cross-border paramilitaries in Colombia. Yet regardless, Trump will push a narrative both domestically and across the world of the U.S. standing up for “freedom” against the “bad guys.”
A successful regime change in Venezuela could up new military options for the U.S., whether intervening in countries like Libya, attacking Iran or even a future interstate war.