National security adviser John Bolton listens during a press briefing at the White House, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, in Washington.

National security adviser John Bolton listens during a press briefing at the White House, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, in Washington. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

How Seriously Should the World Take Trump’s Venezuela Threat?

This isn’t the first time the president has threatened military force against the country, but now he is surrounded by regime-change advocates.

On Monday, as Donald Trump’s administration ratcheted up its pressure on the Venezuelan regime of Nicolás Maduro, the White House wanted Maduro to know that sanctions on the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, might not be the end of the road.

“Look, the president has made it very clear on this matter that all options are on the table,” National-Security Adviser John Bolton said during a White House briefing. He also said that violence against not only U.S. personnel in Venezuela but also the National Assembly and Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. has recognized as the country’s legitimate leader, would be “met with a significant response.”

Bolton declined to say quite what that meant. “We’re not going to define it, because we want the Venezuelan security forces to know how strongly we think that President Guaidó, the National Assembly, the opposition, and most importantly American personnel [should not be] harmed.” (In either an elaborate mind game or a stunning display of absent-mindedness, Bolton also allowed photographers to see a legal pad on which was scrawled, “5,000 troops to Colombia.”)

This was, on the one hand, a remarkably blunt intimation of military action, especially coming from the administration of Donald Trump, who ran for president while criticizing foreign military adventurism. On the other hand, it was yet another threat from an administration that has often failed to follow through on them. The question is whether Venezuela will be different, and whether the presence of veteran regime-change advocates such as Bolton and Elliott Abrams will make the difference.

As I’ve noted before, Trump has a long pattern of talking a big game and then caving. Most recently, he agreed to end the government shutdown on Friday with no promise of funding for his border wall, despite having previously said that he would not reopen the government unless Congress agreed to wall spending. (In earlier cases, Trump had folded on funding for the wall as well.) After vowing to do so, he decided not to brand China a currency manipulator. He said he’d go after the NRA on gun control, then didn’t. He announced he would withdraw funding to countries that voted against the U.S. at the UN, then didn’t. He has threatened full-scale military action against Iran, Syria, and North Korea, and has not made good on any of those threats.

Of course, Trump has sometimes followed through. He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Paris climate accord. After several flinches, he eventually went forward with the trade war with China that he wanted. And his threats have on occasion appeared to work. He seems to have rattled NATO enough to make other nations worried about their contributions to the alliance. His threat of “fire and fury” in North Korea arguably helped bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table, though the material results since then have been basically nothing.

This is also not the first time Trump has threatened military action against Venezuela. In August 2017, he suggested it publicly, with little warning.

“They have many options for Venezuela—and, by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option,” Trump said. “We’re all over the world, and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away, and the people are suffering, and they’re dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary.”

Trump’s focus on Venezuela is perplexing. As my colleague Uri Friedman has written, the support for Maduro’s ouster is one of the least Trumpy things that the president has done, from the support for regime change to the international cooperation involved. The president has no obvious reason for being so focused on the country. Though he’s used Venezuela as a shorthand for what he sees as the failings of socialism, Trump has otherwise evinced little interest in Latin America outside of immigration.

So why would the threat that Bolton delivered Monday be any different? One factor is that Trump has just suffered a humiliating defeat at home, on the shutdown, that involved his folding. When presidents are stymied at home, they often look overseas for a chance to accomplish something quickly and without the pesky limitations of the legislature and judiciary. They often see a quick and decisive military action abroad as a good way to bolster sagging poll numbers, another constant Trump bugaboo. And while Trump has lamented American deployments to the faraway Middle East, he himself noted Venezuela’s proximity in 2017.

The other big factor is personnel. When Trump made his threat in 2017, he was flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and National-Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, all of whom looked on uneasily as he spoke. All three are gone now; Tillerson and McMaster were unceremoniously fired, and Haley left of her own accord. Tillerson has been replaced by the more hawkish Mike Pompeo, but the real changes are at the National Security Council. Bolton, McMaster’s replacement, has long favored regime change, most famously in Iraq.

In an echo of the case that George W. Bush’s administration, in which Bolton served, made for the Iraq War, Bolton warned of “Iran’s interest in Venezuela’s uranium deposits.” Assisting Bolton is another veteran of the Bush team, Elliott Abrams, who was just named special envoy for Venezuela. Abrams has ample experience in Latin American regime change dating back to the 1980s, when he helped support the Contras, a right-wing group attempting to topple the Nicaraguan government. (Abrams pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress in the Iran-Contra affair.)

The simple presence of Bolton and Abrams doesn’t mean that military intervention is a lock. Trump might decide against intervening directly for any number of reasons. Threats might also help erode support for Maduro, ending his regime and obviating a U.S. deployment. If Trump does follow through on threats of military force, though, the fresh faces around the president are likely to be a major factor.