The administration official perhaps most closely associated with the idea of regime change is Bolton, who in recent days has served as a vocal spokesman of Trump’s Venezuela policy. (His aggressive reputation was only further burnished when he was spotted with the note “5,000 troops to Colombia” scrawled on his legal pad. Cutz said that an imminent U.S. invasion is “highly unlikely” and speculated that the national-security adviser could have been engaging in psychological warfare against Maduro or exploring a humanitarian operation on Venezuela’s borders.)
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Bolton has called for the toppling of U.S. enemies since at least 1998, when he signed a letter urging President Bill Clinton to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. (Another signatory, Elliott Abrams, is now Pompeo’s newly minted point person for Venezuela.) He helped implement that policy as an official in the George W. Bush administration and later argued for ousting, through a range of coercive measures including military force, the leaders of Iran, Libya, and North Korea to similarly prevent them from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
As recently as a couple of years ago, Bolton was advocating for the U.S. to do no more than quietly convey its support to the Venezuelan opposition. But in the months before joining the Trump administration, he warmed to the goal of uprooting the government in Caracas, noting how unseating Maduro could also bring down the Castro regime in Cuba and how a failed Venezuelan state could become a haven for international terrorism and drug trafficking in the Western Hemisphere.
When he first joined the administration, though, Bolton was much more focused on Iran—and Trump duly pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal within a month of his appointment. Yet for someone who has advocated preventive strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities and vowed that there would be “hell to pay” for Iran’s continuing deception, Bolton has softened his tone. He’s stated that the Trump administration is seeking to change Tehran’s “behavior” rather than its regime. He’s backed off of previous calls for regime change in North Korea, too, while his boss conducts sunny, strung-out nuclear diplomacy with Kim Jong Un. But in recent days, he’s come far closer to realizing his regime-change reveries in Venezuela, which last year he included in a Latin American “troika of tyranny” that recalled Bush’s infamous “axis of evil.”
In playing up the military option, “Bolton adds an edge” to the Trump administration’s approach that wasn’t present when he worked at the National Security Council, Cutz said, even if McMaster likely would have pursued similar policies to those implemented under Bolton so far.
What remains a mystery, at least publicly, is what comes next, and what the plan will be if Maduro refuses to step down. “Dictators don’t go out peacefully,” remarked Manuel Cáceres, the Paraguayan ambassador to the U.S., at an event on Wednesday with the interim Venezuelan government’s envoy to Washington. Paraguay was the first country to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. But Cáceres warned that autocrats often get violent if cornered. They don’t, to paraphrase John Bolton, tend to jet off to a faraway beach for some R & R.