There’s No Case for War With Venezuela

The public doesn’t want it. Congress won’t authorize it. So why is the Trump administration declaring it an option?

Carlos Barria / Reuters

President Donald Trump has recently turned his attention, and the focus of the U.S. foreign-policy debate, toward the economic and political crisis in Venezuela, where two men are pushing rival claims to be the head of state. The opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, has the support of the United States. But despite mass protests, the Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro refuses to step down.

The Trump administration’s efforts to force his ouster and bolster his opponent’s claims have included oil sanctions, the diplomatic maneuverings described by my colleague Uri Friedman, and harsh rhetoric. I want to focus on a subset of that rhetoric: threats of military force.

In 2017, Trump stated, “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary.” The AP reports on a bygone occasion when he privately underscored that posture:

As a meeting last August to discuss sanctions on Venezuela was concluding, President Donald Trump turned to his top aides and asked an unsettling question: With a fast unraveling Venezuela threatening regional security, why can’t the U.S. just simply invade the troubled country? The suggestion stunned those present … including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, both of whom have since left the administration.

This account of the previously undisclosed conversation comes from a senior administration official … McMaster and others took turns explaining to Trump how military action could backfire and risk losing hard-won support among Latin American governments to punish President Nicolas Maduro for taking Venezuela down the path of dictatorship, according to the official. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.

As recently as Monday, National-Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters, “The president has made it very clear on this matter that all options are on the table.” He appeared to signal that U.S. troops might be sent to the region. And Senator Lindsey Graham told an Axios reporter that Trump had recently mused to him about a military option.

Trump has always been more hawkish than most people realize. Still, it is hard to know how much of this is earnest and how much is bluffing. If Team Trump is merely bluffing, the saber-rattling could conceivably pay off by yielding concessions, or undermine U.S. interests by alienating Venezuelans against the side we’re backing, or have no real effect. To me, bluffing when one cannot lawfully follow through is a generally high-risk, foolhardy approach to international relations, but it’s still preferable to the alternative explanation: a risky, unilateral war of choice that shouldn’t even be a possibility.

That’s because the Trump administration has no legal basis to intervene militarily in Venezuela without prior authorization from Congress. This Congress seems unlikely to authorize the deployment of U.S. troops to Venezuela. And while I’ve seen no polling on the matter, I strongly suspect that the public would oppose a new war there, and that if a war were begun, neither Congress nor the public would possess the resolve to see it through to a successful conclusion.

A war of that sort might be less likely if the media organizations reporting on Trump administration saber-rattling always pointed out that actually waging war would be flagrantly unlawful, rather than proceeding as if this is a matter properly decided by the White House. But much of the press has accustomed itself to an imperial presidency, so the Constitution’s mandates often go unmentioned.

Still, if the Trump administration unilaterally wages war in Venezuela, violating the separation of powers in the Constitution—a document that the president is sworn to protect and defend—the House should move to impeach the president.