17 January 2019
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro may actually be thankful for US President Donald Trump's threat to invade his country. Photo: Reuters
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro may actually be thankful for US President Donald Trump's threat to invade his country. Photo: Reuters

Is US likely to launch military intervention in Venezuela?

Recently US President Donald Trump has wowed the public again by saying that there are numerous ways in which Washington can help the people of Venezuela restore democracy and stability to their country, and among the options on the table is military intervention.

Did President Trump really mean that?

In theory, as the commander-in-chief of the US forces, Trump does have the power to order his troops to invade whatever country he wants. However, in reality, all US presidents have to follow a set of guiding principles when it comes to determining whether to deploy troops to intervene in another country.

The first and foremost principle is that whenever US national interests or the safety of US citizens abroad are under threat, then the president would be fully justified in ordering US troops to intervene in another country by force.

One typical example is the US invasion of the tiny Caribbean state of Grenada in 1983 after the radical left in the country staged a coup and assassinated their popularly elected leader.

As violence and chaos escalated in Grenada, President Ronald Reagan, at the request of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), sent more than 10,000 US soldiers to restore order and remove the unlawful radical regime in the country, and also to evacuate dozens of American medical students who were there at the atime on an exchange program.

In fact, the US military intervention in Grenada had another secret agenda: to topple the ultra-left regime as soon as possible and re-install a pro-US government in the country so as to prevent the Soviet Union from getting an ally and gaining a foothold in the Caribbean.

Things are completely different in the case of Venezuela, and it will be quite hard for the US to justify sending troops to the region under the same principle it used 34 years ago.

Venezuela is a lot larger and populous than Grenada, and any US military intervention in the country could end up becoming a long drawn-out conflict like the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Also, unlike Grenada, which was completely abandoned by other Latin American countries back in 1983, Venezuela, despite its ongoing domestic chaos, still has a lot of allies in the region, including Cuba. These countries are highly unlikely to endorse any US military operation right on their doorstep, let alone “invite” Washington to send troops “to restore order there”.

Besides, there is not much US national interest or any American citizen at stake in Venezuela, as the country itself has already banned US investors for years.

But even so, there might still be other principles which Washington could invoke in order to justify sending troops to Venezuela.

For example, according to the principle of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) laid down by the United Nations Security Council in 2005, members of the international community are under obligation to send troops to intervene in any country where crimes against humanity such as genocide or mass murders are taking place, and where the local authorities in that country are unable to stop these crimes. The most recent examples are Libya and Syria.

Venezuela may be engulfed in political turmoil and President Nicolas Maduro may be cracking down on his opponents, but apparently there are no crimes against humanity taking place in the country, not to mention that the government in Caracas is still fully functioning. Hence, there is no justification for any foreign military intervention.

Trump, despite being a neophyte president with zero experience in foreign policy, can’t be ignorant about these facts.

This raises an interesting question: Why was he still publicly threatening President Maduro with military action, even though he is well aware that sending troops to Venezuela is basically off the table at this stage?

While there might be a lot of explanations for his hawkish rhetoric against Venezuela, perhaps, in my opinion, it is likely that what President Trump is trying to do is to divert public attention from other issues by bluffing and blustering.

In the past, any public remark made by a US president on any particular issue would always be taken very seriously by the international community because whatever he said would have profound implications for global stability.

However, it appears it is no longer the case in the Trump era, because what we have here is a US president who doesn’t always think carefully before he speaks, nor does he seem to care about the worldwide repercussions of his off-the-cuff remarks.

Ironically, President Maduro might actually be thankful for Trump’s threat to invade his country because it has just given him the very excuse he needs to rationalize his personal dictatorship “amid foreign aggression”.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 22

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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