What's next for Venezuela — and for Washington

What's next for Venezuela — and for Washington
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With no end in sight to the turmoil in Venezuela, President TrumpDonald John TrumpPapadopoulos on AG's new powers: 'Trump is now on the offense' Pelosi uses Trump to her advantage Mike Pence delivers West Point commencement address MORE boldly withdrew U.S. recognition of its embattled president, Nicolas Maduro, and threw its support behind self-declared interim president Juan Guaido, leader of the opposition and of the National Assembly — the country’s last bastion of democracy.

Trump quickly won the support of 11 members of the Lima Group, which was created in 2017 to find a peaceful resolution to the Venezuelan crisis. Among those aligning themselves with Washington are five of the six richest and most powerful states in the Western Hemisphere: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile and Colombia. The sixth, Mexico, together with Cuba and Bolivia, declared their continued support for Maduro.

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The three left-wing governments since have been joined by China, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syria in support of the Venezuelan dictator. In a statement reeking of hypocrisy, given Russia’s sordid record in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned against any American “meddling” in Venezuelan affairs. He went on to assert that any “resort to military power would be catastrophic. … It would be another huge blow to the international system.”

No less hypocritical, in light of its own troublemaking in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, Tehran announced its support for Maduro “in the face of any foreign meddling in the country’s domestic affairs.” Turkey, whose forces are ensconced in northwestern Syria, likewise has warned against any military action against Maduro’s government. China weighed in with a call for “mutual respect and noninterference in each other's internal affairs.”

And Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, that notable champion of human rights, attacked Washington for its “flagrant violation of all the international norms and laws.”

Maduro has ordered the expulsion of all American diplomats by Saturday. U.S. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoVenezuelan government, opposition to meet in Norway for talks O'Rourke: Trump 'provoking' war with Iran by sending troops to Middle East Trump aide: North Korean missile tests violated UN resolutions MORE responded by announcing that Washington will ignore Maduro and will not withdraw its personnel. Were the United States to comply with Maduro’s demand, it would in effect undercut its own policy by implicitly recognizing his authority.

Beyond the question of what to do with its diplomats, however, lies the larger issue of whether to undertake a military operation to depose Maduro and effectively install Guaido in the presidential palace.

President Trump may decide to pursue the military option, one that he reportedly has considered on more than one occasion. Given his domestic troubles, and a defiant Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, he may well choose to pursue a classic “wag the dog” policy so as divert attention from his domestic travails.

He could point to George H.W. Bush’s 1989 decision to intervene in Panama, which resulted in the capture and incarceration in a Miami prison of its strongman, Gen. Manuel Noriega. He could argue that the Russians flagrantly challenged the Monroe Doctrine by sending two Tu-160 Blackjack strategic nuclear bombers to Venezuela last month. Finally, he could attempt to construct a “coalition of the willing” to support a military invasion, so as to demonstrate that Washington was not acting unilaterally.

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Should the United States mount a military operation against Maduro, there is actually little that Russia, China or, for that matter, Mexico or any of the others, could do about it, other than make lots of noise in the United Nations.

On the other hand, it is not at all clear either that Washington could actually organize a coalition of the willing to invade Venezuela, or that the Venezuelan army, which until now has voiced its support for Maduro, would join the effort to unseat him. If it does not, the result could be considerable bloodshed, an outcome that the American public is unlikely to tolerate given the ongoing costs in blood and treasure that America has incurred for unseating the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, even if the United States were successfully to defeat Venezuelan forces loyal to the government, perhaps by relying heavily on long-range air and naval power to create an environment of “shock and awe” as it did at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it could nevertheless be faced with the twin challenges of reconstructing a country already suffering from economic chaos and having to deal with guerrilla operations by hard-core Maduro loyalists in what is, after all, a rather large country. Neither of these possibilities, with their consequences for long-term military involvement in yet another overseas contingency, is likely to appeal to a president who has repeatedly pledged to terminate America’s entanglements in the Middle East and Central Asia.

For now, it would be best if Washington continued to act forcefully in the political and diplomatic spheres. It should continue to support and work with Guaido and his democratic colleagues to implement desperately needed reforms. It should coordinate policy with like-minded Latin American countries, and Canada, to provide financial and economic support to the Guaido government and its supporters in the streets.

Should all of the foregoing fail to dislodge Maduro, it should then consult with its partners to determine whether they would indeed participate in a military operation and, equally important, take the lead in supporting the country’s reconstruction that inevitably would follow a victory on the battlefield.  

Perhaps, at that point, they might actually be willing to do both.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.