The Trump administration’s outsized rhetoric about increased defense spending is already unrealistic. The FY18 budget and politically-complicated congressional dynamics make it all but certain that Pentagon spending next year will be marginal at best. Meanwhile, the military’s operational tempo remains high; from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, to North Korea and the South China Sea, the U.S. military has been quite busy in recent years. Also, there is the very real possibility that the Trump Administration will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, which will lead Tehran to restart its nuclear program, increasing the likelihood of conflict with the U.S. and Israel. Finally, add a number of other countries subjected to U.S. counter-terrorism operations and you begin to see an over-extended US military.
If all this were not enough, suddenly, to everyone’s surprise (including the U.S. military) on August 11th, President Trump stated that the U.S. was considering a “military option” to resolve the turmoil in Venezuela. Apparently, this came without consulting the State Department and U.S. military. The Pentagon immediately responded by stating that it had not received an order from the White House to plan for a military intervention. Others in the government sought to disavow the president’s reckless, impulsive bluster, though Vice President Mike Pence seemed to double down on Trump’s statement by repeating that “all options are on the table” and that the U.S. would “not stand by as Venezuela collapses into a dictatorship or failed state.”
Let’s leave aside the near unanimous repudiation from U.S. allies in the region and the near-consensus view among analysts that Trump’s unfortunate suggestion was not only reckless but counterproductive in, as former NSC director for the Western Hemisphere Mark Feierstein wrote, “upsetting the momentum toward stronger Latin American action on Venezuela” and giving Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro a major propaganda victory.
Instead, let’s focus on whether it makes sense for an over-extended military to use its finite resources to resolve Venezuela’s political turmoil.
First, it should be said that since at least the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon, as reflected in a number of defense/military strategy documents, does not consider the Western Hemisphere a theater for planning and conducting conventional military operations. There are simply no military threats or competitors to the U.S. in a region considered to be a “zone of peace.” The 2017 Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) engagement statement highlights as part of its main efforts the need to counter threat networks, prepare for and respond to disasters and crises, build relationships to meet global challenges, and conduct detention operations—none of those involve or foresee direct military intervention in the region. Moreover, for decades, the policy shops at the Office of the Secretary of Defense or the Joint Staff, along with SOUTHCOM, have focused their attention on combatting insurgencies and transnational criminal networks in partnership with the region’s governments while building local capacity and relationships essential for dealing with regional challenges, such as illicit trafficking and humanitarian assistance and disaster response. In short, although it can certainly plan for one, SOUTHCOM is not in the business of planning military interventions or occupations in the hemisphere.
Setting this strategic reality aside, let’s assume a decision is made to move resources from more active theaters of operations, such as in the Middle East and Asia, to the Western Hemisphere to plan and execute a military operation in Venezuela. First, one must ask, “what is the political goal or end state of an intervention?”
There are really only two goals for which the military instrument of power could be used: regime change or forcing a change in the behavior or policies of the Maduro government. If the goal is regime change, and assuming that U.S. forces will not encounter much resistance, the Pentagon will have to plan for at least a force of 150,000 that can quickly overwhelm any conventional and irregular resistance during the intervention and subsequent occupation.
The Maduro government is very likely to collapse almost immediately, leaving no government in place to assume the responsibilities of law and order. As a result, U.S. forces will have to remain until at least stability and a legitimate government is restored. It is hard to objectively calculate the overall costs of the intervention/occupation and time on the ground. What should be clear is that significant naval, air and ground forces and capabilities will have to be transferred from active theaters that are real threats to U.S. and global security, such as Syria, Iraq, North Korea and Afghanistan.
If the political objective is to change the Venezuelan dictatorship’s behavior such that it will allow for elections and the restoration of the rule of law, it will at a minimum require a show of force that still requires the transfer of forces and equipment from much more vital conflict zones. Of course, when you go down this path, one has to be ready to use force if the regime doesn’t change its behavior. Surgical air strikes are sure to create chaos, violence among competing political actors and a collapsed state, leaving the U.S. with no other option than to intervene.
In short, from a strictly military standpoint, the last thing the U.S. armed forces want, already over-stretched and on high levels of alert in key conflict zones, is to have to plan and execute a military intervention and likely occupation of a country that does not represent a grave threat to U.S. security and that is likely to lead to strong anti-U.S. sentiment across a region where the US military has done much to build goodwill in the last decade or so. The last thing this administration needs is another empty threat.