While discussing the situation in Venezuela, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently stated that “military action is possible.” The remarks came after a new round of violence and an apparently failed uprising against the regime of de facto President Nicolás Maduro.
At this point, it is necessary to discuss the rhetoric utilized by the White House and US Congress regarding Venezuela, compared to how senior US military commanders discuss the situation and the possibility of US military action in the South American country.
Pro-Intervention: Pompeo and Scott
The White House has generally maintained a fiery rhetoric regarding Venezuela. For example, on May 1 on Fox Business Maria Bartiromo asked Pompeo, “Is the US support going to include troops? Are the military troops in the US going to head there and support Guaidó?” He responded:
The president has been crystal clear and incredibly consistent. Military action is possible. If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do. We’re trying to do everything we can to avoid violence. We’ve asked all the parties involved not to engage in that kind of activity
The phrase “military action is possible,” has been widely quoted.
Secretary Pompeo is hardly the only individual that has made such provocative remarks, as Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) made a similar statement at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. During his April 11 speech, he stated that the Maduro regime “represents a clear and present danger to the entire Western Hemisphere,” hence “all options, including the use of American military assets, must remain on the table.” Moreover, given the humanitarian crisis in the South American country, “it is becoming clear that we will have to consider the use of American military assets to deliver aid.”
Against Intervention: Engel and Hill
On the other hand, several members of the Democratic party have voiced their concerns about the way the Trump administration and some Republican members of Congress talk about deploying the US military to Venezuela. For example, back in February, Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, memorably stated, “I do worry about the president’s saber-rattling, his hints that US military intervention remains an option. I want to make clear to our witnesses and to anyone else watching: US military intervention is not an option.”
Representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), made a similar statement during a hearing on May 1. Smith expressed, “I am concerned though that we would think that there is some sort of role for the US military role [in Venezuela], given our history down there and given what we’ve learned about using the military to…change governments.”
The US Military’s Measured Rhetoric
So how is the US military reacting to not just the situation in Venezuela, but also the contradictory statements coming out of Washington? The Washington Post reported about a meeting between National Security Advisor John Bolton, his staff, and representatives of the US military, including Air Force General Paul Selva, vice-chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. According to the report, “a senior administration official said Bolton’s staff was dissatisfied with Selva, who they felt had not presented sufficient military options for Venezuela as expected.”
Similarly, in the aforementioned HASC hearing, Admiral Craig Faller, commander of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), was asked about what role does he see for the US military regarding Venezuela. Contrary to what the White House stated, Faller explained that “we’ve been focused on working with our regional partners, intelligence sharing…we have generated a shared appreciation for the complexities associated with the problem in Venezuela…and we are looking for ways to apply our security assistance in a mutually beneficial way. That’s been the primary line of effort.” The secondary line, the admiral explained, was to plan for the evacuation and protection of US citizens in Venezuela, and also support USAID to deliver humanitarian aid.
What Kind of Rhetoric Helps More?
It is clear that there is no united front among the White House, Congress, and US military about what to do with the Maduro regime. “All options are on the table,” obviously means that a military operation of some sort (aimed at regime change) is a possibility. Admiral Faller was repeatedly asked about what kind of plans SOUTHCOM has regarding a potential invasion of Venezuela—I attended said hearing, and just about every member of HASC asked Faller about this possibility—and his responses were always similar.
When asked by Rep. Smith about whether he sees a US military role in overthrowing Maduro, Adm. Faller replied “our leadership’s been clear. It has to be, should be, primarily a democratic transition. We are in total support of diplomacy, and we stand ready to support that effort.” He also discussed “the day after” plans, namely how SOUTHCOM can work with Venezuelan armed forces in the post-Maduro era.
There is one fitting example that highlights how some civilian policymakers appear to be unaware of what the US military is prepared to do. As previously mentioned, at AEI Sen. Scott mused how the US armed forces could be tasked with helping deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuelan citizens, inside Venezuelan territory. During the question and answer section, an audience member asked him to expand on this idea, including “under what authority do you see us being able to do that, whether the UN or the OAS would provide some blue helmet authority,” and “how many of our troops do we put at risk to do this,” as such an operation could potentially end up in combating troops loyal to Maduro. Scott’s answer was simply “those are lot of difficult things to figure out. I am very confident that our military can figure this out,” and also stated that “whatever we are going to do, it has to be done in a manner that our forces are safe.”
The bizarreness of Scott’s response suggests that he was making a promise without actually having checked with US military commanders about whether they have specific plans for such a provocative operation and its potential consequences. At a broader level, this response, compared to Adm. Faller’s non-inflammatory statements at the HASC, or the interaction between Bolton’s staff and Gen. Selva, exemplifies that we have reached the point where promises by civilian policymakers are no longer in harmony with the reality of the US armed forces.
Deception, exaggeration, and red lines are tools in any standard foreign policy tool kit, particularly when we discuss inter-state tensions, such as what is occurring between Washington and the de facto Maduro regime.
Nevertheless, the White House appears to have backed itself into a corner when it comes to how far it is willing to go to get rid of Maduro. Similarly problematic is that the different statements coming out of Washington and the US military’s high command, which demonstrate that there is no united front in Washington about what to do with Venezuela.
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military and cybersecurity issues.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.
Photo Credit: White House National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton talks to reporters about Venezuela and other topics on Wednesday, May 1, 2019, outside the West Wing entrance of the White House. Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour.