Report

U.S. Mulls Military Options in Venezuela

Experts think any U.S. action would be limited.

White House National Security Advisor John Bolton talks to reporters outside the West Wing in Washington on May 1.
White House National Security Advisor John Bolton talks to reporters outside the West Wing in Washington on May 1. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Key figures from U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security team gathered at the Pentagon Friday morning to discuss options for military action in Venezuela, as violent clashes continued between forces backing embattled President Nicolás Maduro and supporters of opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

The meeting took place in a secure conference room known as the “tank,” acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told a small group of reporters hours later. He declined to specify what options were being considered but did not rule out U.S. military action against Maduro.

“Timing of actions is always the question,” Shanahan said. “We have a comprehensive set of options tailored to certain conditions.”

The news comes just days after Guaidó, who declared himself Venezuela’s interim leader in January and is backed by the United States, tried to ignite an uprising to force Maduro from office. The attempt failed, despite claims from top U.S. officials that several senior Venezuelan officials had promised to defect. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Maduro was ready to board a plane to Havana in response to the protests, but Russia persuaded him to remain in the country. Pompeo’s statement has not been otherwise confirmed.

In a show of defiance, Maduro appeared publicly on Friday flanked by scores of soldiers at an army base in Caracas, and he called on the armed forces to defeat “any coup plotter.”

The failed uprising suggested the U.S. administration may have miscalculated or acted on faulty information. But Shanahan said he is “confident in the quality and accuracy of the information that we are getting.”

“I don’t feel like we have an intelligence gap,” he said.

Friday’s meeting included Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood, and U.S. Southern Command chief Craig Faller, among others.

Shanahan canceled a planned trip to Europe this week to remain in Washington for meetings on Venezuela. But experts say any U.S. military action there would likely be limited. Retired Adm. James Stavridis, who commanded U.S. Southern Command from 2006 to 2009, said the military is likely working on a wide variety of contingency plans, ranging from increased surveillance to preparing to evacuate tens of thousands of U.S. citizens from the country.

That would be “the most aggressive contingency plan they are looking at,” he said, noting that even such a comparatively small step would require significant resources and planning.

“To do an evacuation of tens of thousands would require control of an airfield, control of ports—all of that would require a military effort,” he said.

Fernando Cutz, who served as senior advisor to former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, said the administration may be considering a naval blockade or a “do not fly” zone, but it’s unclear what the aim of either would be.

“The American people certainly don’t seem to be in a mindset of wanting to go down that path of a war with Venezuela,” Cutz said.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham seemed to suggest on Twitter Friday that the U.S. military send an aircraft carrier to the region. Shanahan, when asked about the tweet, declined to say whether such a deployment is being considered.

Cutz criticized senior U.S. officials, particularly Bolton, for repeatedly threatening military action without actually delivering.

“It’s a very dangerous path where we’re putting ourselves into a corner for no reason,” he said. “We are getting to a point where we either put up or shut up.”

Shanahan said the United States is discussing with partners in the region what steps to take following a transition of power in Venezuela—in the event one takes place. This could include a range of actions from humanitarian and medical support to military training.

If the United States intervenes militarily, it will be responsible for a larger share of the rebuilding burden once Maduro is defeated, Cutz noted.

“As we saw in Iraq, the rebuilding efforts would be monumental,” he said. “If we are the cause of that day after … then certainly we would also be stuck with the bill and the full weight of having to rebuild the country.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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