Foreign Policy

Trump’s challenge to Venezuela’s president could lead to a military occupation. Here’s why — and why that’s dangerous.

Jan 24 '19

President Trump recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela on Wednesday, rejecting Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly contested status as president. That action prompted speculation that the United States might intervene in Venezuela’s extreme economic and political crisis, which has left thousands starving and without medicine. An estimated 250,000 have fled the collapsing economy for neighboring countries, with thousands more leaving each day.

In November, national security adviser John Bolton gave a speech in which he called Venezuela part of the Western Hemisphere’s “troika of tyranny.” The Trump administration announced Wednesday that “all options are on the table” for Venezuela, refusing to rule out military intervention.

So far, there are no signs that military intervention is being planned. But academic research shows that any effort to overthrow the Maduro regime is most likely to end with the U.S. military occupying the country for a long time, whether policymakers planned for it or not.

Trying to change a foreign regime generally fails

Even though there is a long history of regime-change missions in Latin America, they rarely succeed in making the targeted country alter its politics. Political scientists Alexander Downes and Lindsey O’Rourke recently explained here at TMC why regime change is unlikely to work in Iran — and why it so rarely works anywhere.

Regime change is especially likely to fail when the outside power is attempting to build new domestic institutions. In fact, the result is often increased civil conflict, as we’ve seen in Iraq. Even covert regime-change operations, as O’Rourke has shown, result in blowback against the power behind the overthrow — and fail to achieve their goals. And in Latin America, where the United States has a long and fraught history of intervening, recent research shows that such efforts worsen economic relations between the United States and the targeted nation.

Yes, there have been a few successful cases, notably Germany and Japan after World War II. But those successes built on preexisting local conditions and strong bureaucracies already in place to support a stable democracy.

But wait — it gets worse. Once there’s a military occupation, successfully changing the regime becomes even more unlikely. Citizens often resent the occupying forces changing their institutions, breeding resistance movements — making it even more difficult for the occupying country to withdraw its military.

Policymakers think interventions are easy. That leads to poor planning.

So why do some policymakers think they can intervene in other nations’ internal politics without stumbling into these quagmires?

Even dedicated country experts have difficulty understanding local conditions in foreign territories or foreseeing how a nation’s citizens will respond to foreign intervention. This uncertainty can lead policymakers in Washington to make optimistic assumptions of what a U.S. intervention could achieve, leading to optimistic assumption about the effectiveness of a quick intervention. Recall how many Americans were, like Vice President Richard B. Cheney, certain that Iraqis would welcome the United States as “liberators” — and failed to foresee the nation fracturing into civil war.

Political scientist Aaron Rapport has shown that the policymakers who focus most on the benefits of interventions and regime-change missions are exactly the ones who often have the hardest time planning them. When they’re too focused on the potential upsides, they often overlook the practical challenges. Their misplaced certainty in their own assessments gives them a dangerously reassuring overconfidence in their decisions, as the policymakers are sure that their goals can be achieved quickly and cheaply. As Melissa Willard-Foster has shown, when major powers see strong domestic divisions in a foreign country, as is true in Venezuela right now, they often assume that regime change won’t be costly and that the opposition will happily work with them. That can be a treacherous assumption.

Iraq showed just how difficult interventions can get

As my research shows, only after a military arrives in a country can it accurately assess the local conditions and see how hard it will be to achieve its leaders’ political goals. Often, the local collaborators aren’t as capable as policymakers had hoped, and they have to build up local leaders and institutions — or the country will become dangerously unstable. Once an occupying power has to build reliable institutions, train leaders and political parties, and shore up civil society, there goes the dream of a short-lived armed intervention.

We can see all that in the most famous recent case of regime change, Iraq. The U.S. Army War College recently released a volume of previously classified documents on the Iraq War. Planners assumed that after Saddam Hussein was deposed, they’d find a functioning Iraqi bureaucracy ready to take over governance — and U.S. ground forces could quickly go home. But occupying forces discovered instead a weak government bureaucracy that had depended on Hussein and his strongmen for guidance. The United States had no backup plan — and was forced to settle in for a lengthy occupation to rebuild the Iraqi state.

President Trump has made clear that he wants to get the United States out of the business of long-term occupations, withdrawing peremptorily from Afghanistan and Syria. Clearly, he has no interest in launching a lengthy occupation of Venezuela. But the administration could easily justify and launch a regime-change mission without realizing how quickly it could founder into precisely the sort of mission the president seems to detest.

Benjamin Denison (@DenisonBe) is a postdoctoral fellow in U.S. foreign policy and international security at Dartmouth College’s Dickey Center for International Understanding.