President Donald J. Trump has marched headlong into another escalating crisis—this time with the imploding Venezuela. And this one is altogether avoidable. Although the growing unrest in Venezuela threatens to destabilize Latin America, it appears the president believes he can link the troubles there with the showdown with North Korea. This is a mistake.
Yes, Venezuela is a problem for the United States. A once-vibrant and resource-rich ally, Venezuela has over the past 20 years supplanted Cuba as the main anti-American malefactor in the Western hemisphere. Hugo Chávez, a militant socialist and friend of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, made a career of consolidating power by demonizing the United States. In 2002, a few years after his contested first election as president, Chávez blamed a popular uprising on CIA meddling. (In truth, the CIA probably was meddling—or at least assisting the pro-democracy movement in the most ham-handed ways possible.)
After that debacle, Chávez became an avowed opponent of the United States and a thorn in the side of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Chávez’s death in 2013 changed little. His successor, Nicolas Maduro, is no less socialist—or corrupt. Earlier this month, scores of opposition leaders were rounded up in the middle of the night and “disappeared.” Maduro is desperate to hold onto power, having brought his nation to the brink of total collapse. Venezuela’s tanking economy, abetted by a plunge in the global price of oil, has led to massive unrest and a surge of refugees fleeing to neighboring Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. Yet despite worsening relations, the United States continues to import 7 percent of its oil from Venezuela.
So Venezuela is a diplomatic and humanitarian problem for its neighbors and for us. President Trump on Friday pointedly refused to take a call from Maduro—and won’t unless and until Maduro acts like less of a dictator and clears the way for some proper democratic reforms. Which is a perfectly legitimate demand to make, and one that’s been echoed by a Peruvian-led 17-nation regional bloc. But the president didn’t leave it at that. He told reporters on Friday, “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary.”
In case anyone missed the point, the president elaborated moments later: “You know, we are all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering, and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”
Now, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and others in Congress quickly spoke up and said they would not support military intervention in Venezuela, especially with the crisis in North Korea unsettled. And that’s a sensible view. However, it’s likely that the administration is looking to hit the less-threatening Maduro regime precisely because the situation with North Korea is so tense. It makes Trump look tough for audiences in North Korea and China, without actually risking a nuclear exchange with Pyongyang. Unlike Kim Jong-un threatening U.S. bases on Guam, there is no danger of Maduro launching preemptive or retaliatory missile strikes on, say, West Palm Beach.
A Repeat of Syria
Getting tough with Venezuela now would appear similar to Trump’s bombardment of the Syrian air base where a suspected chemical weapons attack against civilians was launched in April. Although that particular airstrike came in retaliation for Bashar al Assad’s flagrant defiance of Trump’s “red line” against the use of weapons of mass destruction, it was also meant to send a clear signal to North Korea that the new American president was not fooling around. If Trump could harm a tyrant wielding WMD in the Middle East, he could harm a tyrant brandishing nukes on the Korean Peninsula.
Apparently, Kim—or his Chinese benefactors—didn’t get the message.
Fact is, the United States is a superpower with resources spanning the globe. America doubtless has a role to play assisting Peru, Colombia, and Brazil with the humanitarian, diplomatic, and military challenges they face from the deteriorating conditions in Venezuela. Ultimately, however, Venezuela is a problem best solved by her Latin American neighbors. Maduro may fall. But pushing him over would be folly. And it’s hard to see how (yet another) U.S. military intervention in South America would help with the North Korea crisis. Besides, for all of our power, we do have limitations on our ability to use force.
I suspect that President Trump is bluffing on his threats against Venezuela and that this is all part of a giant feint to get North Korea to the negotiating table. However, this is a very dangerous game. At the end of the day, the Maduro regime is on the brink of collapse. If we push too hard—either rhetorically or, ultimately, with limited force to prove our resolve—we will have to own a post-Maduro Venezuela, just as we’re responsible for post-war Iraq. This is not acceptable, given the limitations on American military and economic power today. Trump’s diplomatic feint, I believe, is ill-conceived and should be abandoned.
From Rogue to Real Power
That’s why Trump’s pivot to Venezuela is a waste of time—a sideshow from the main event at precisely the time North Korea demands maximum attention and pressure. Turning to Venezuela would divert critical American military resources and buy China and North Korea more precious time to rebuff U.S. efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
For Kim Jong-un, acquiring nuclear weapons comes down to basic survival. Yes, North Korea has a vast military apparatus, including missiles and tens of thousands of pieces of artillery pointed southward. But a viable nuclear weapon—one capable of striking the U.S. mainland—is the insurance Kim believes he needs to remain safely in power.
Think about it: within 18 months, it is likely that the North Korean military will have at its disposal ICBMs capable of hitting far-off American targets. At that point, North Korea goes from being a rogue state easily contained, to a nuclear power whose demands, no matter how insane, must be heeded.
Every U.S. president since Bill Clinton has tried to delay the day of reckoning with Pyongyang. Time is up. We can longer afford anymore distractions. No amount of trickery will deter the North Koreans from achieving their objective. The United States and its allies need decisiveness and focus from America’s leadership. The longer we delay; the more indecisive America is in dealing with North Korea, the more powerful Kim Jong-un becomes—and the more likely that Kim saves his regime. That would be a disaster for the United States.
Venezuela can wait. North Korea cannot. The road to peace does not run through Caracas. It runs through Beijing.
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