Editor’s note: A few days ago my friend (and Global Americans contributor) Juan Nagel responded to a Tweet of mine that U.S. military intervention in Venezuela to unseat the Maduro government is not just a horrible idea, but a dangerous one. (I was forwarding an excellent Foreign Affairs piece by Moises Naim and Francisco Toro that made the same argument, among many other excellent ones.) Juan responded that according to game theory, the threat of military intervention does make sense.
With that in mind, we decided to have a little blind debate over the theoretical merit of a U.S. intervention in Venezuela. I invited Juan to explain his argument for why the threat of intervention has a game theoretical logic to either force the Maduro government to the table for in-earnest mediation talks or to cede power. In turn, I would offer my argument for why I didn’t think it made sense, even theoretically. Neither of us has seen the other’s response. This is my argument. Click here to read Juan’s argument.
For a threat to work in a game theoretical situation, the issuer has to be willing to use it; in other words, the threat has to both realistic and credible. If not, it is just a bluff, and should the other actor call them on it, the bluffer will either lose credibility (and thus power) or engage in an ultimately counterproductive or destructive act.
In short, trying to strengthen the hand of the U.S.—and indirectly the Venezuelan opposition—by brandishing the threat of intervention is a bad, counterproductive gamble. First, there is no consensus within the U.S. policy community, among the U.S. electorate or among U.S. allies in the region on the desirability of putting boots on the ground to unseat Maduro. Any effort to deploy U.S. women and men in uniform to yet another foreign adventure—even leaving aside its feasibility and cost—would provoke broad opposition, and not just among the usual suspects. Even Defense Secretary James Mattis has implied that Venezuela is not a military issue. The U.S. military would oppose another extension of its force, as would members of the U.S. Congress from both sides of the aisle, much of the self-appointed pundit class (which still feels burned for having supported the Iraq invasion), and Venezuela’s neighbors (many of whom may be secretly hoping for some quick resolution—even involving the U.S.—but would be sure to move quickly and loudly to denounce a U.S. invasion).
Sending U.S. troops to Venezuela for another regime-change mission of undetermined length would also not sit well with voters. Even among Republican voters, the Iraq War is now widely seen as a mistake—a sentiment expressed in part in the election of Donald Trump; there is no popular appetite for another lengthy, costly war, particularly among voters who bore the brunt of the wars of the Bush administration.
Second, invading Venezuela, as Frank Mora wrote in Foreign Affairs, is just plain impractical. It would distract U.S. forces from other theaters—Northern Africa, the Middle East, and South Korea, to name just a few—where there are greater national security risks. Moreover, Venezuela would not be the same as the other quick-and-dirty recent invasions south of the border. For one, with a population of 31 million and a land mass of 353,841 square miles—covering jungle, mountains, a half dozen or so major cities, and a vast coastline—Venezuela is not Panama or Grenada. The regime also retains some levels of both popular and armed support. While the veracity of polling numbers citing Maduro’s popularity at 20 percent are difficult to verify, there are still pockets of chavista support in the country, and there are the armed civilian paramilitary groups, los colectivos, that would likely bog down and harass any invading force. Last, and given these realities, there is no clear exit strategy. What is the plan? Who will replace Maduro? Under what constitution? How is the country to be secured? When should elections be held? Under what authority? How do you purge the armed forces of corrupt elements? And how do you prevent a possible bloodletting that would likely happen as both sides seek to equal scores? In a nutshell, it would be a mess. Does the U.S. really need or want that?
Given all these constraints and risks, talking military intervention isn’t even a good theoretical gamble. Few would really believe it, and it is improbable that the U.S. would follow through, which would leave it looking all the weaker. Worse, should the U.S. really play this card, it’s conceivable that the governments advising and supporting the Maduro government—Cuba, Russia and China—may seek to have Maduro and his cronies goad the U.S. to intervene. They would likely love to cut their ties to a flailing regime if it meant bogging down their foe in another folly that would leave it weaker and damage its regional and global standing.
This time, game theory may actually be a good guide to a realistic strategy, and it leads to the conclusion that the risks of openly threatening military intervention are greater than any potential strategic gains.