Since President Donald Trump first mentioned potential US military action in response to ongoing crises in Venezuela, the idea of US-led intervention has been raised by policymakers in the US and around the region.
The subject returned to the fore in recent weeks, as several officials, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, stressed that no option should be ruled out.
During a meeting with Colombian President Ivan Duque at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump found an opportunity to make light of the tension.
While taking questions alongside Duque, Trump was asked how dangerous the Maduro government was to national security and what, if anything, he would do to address that threat.
“Well, it’s dangerous for their security. It’s dangerous for their people’s security,” Trump said, according to footage recorded by Venezuelan journalist Lohena Reveron. “It’s a regime that frankly could be toppled very quickly by the military, if the military decides to do that.”
“And you saw how the military spread as soon as they heard a bomb go off way above their head,” Trump added in apparent reference to an August attack on Maduro by bomb-laden drones. The drones detonated overhead while Maduro was giving a speech to commemorate the country’s national guard.
“That military was running for cover. That’s not good,” Trump said. “I don’t think the Marines would’ve run,” Trump said, referring to US service members.
Trump then turned to John Kelly, the White House chief of staff and a retired Marine general: “What do you think, Gen. Kelly? Do the marines run when they hear a bomb go off?”
“They don’t know how to run,” Kelly replied, drawing chuckles from the room.
“You know what they do? They run toward the bomb, right? That’s even better,” Trump said, eliciting more laughter.
Trump made the unexpected declaration that he would not “rule out a military option” in Venezuela in August 2017.
In the months since, his administration has kept pressure on Venezuelan officials through targeted sanctions, and Trump himself has reportedly broached the subject of intervention several times with US and foreign officials.
In August, Rubio said he believed there was a “very strong” argument that “Venezuela and the Maduro regime have become a threat to the region and to the United States.”
His comments were followed this month by Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro saying that “with respect to a military intervention” to oust Maduro, he didn’t “think any option should be ruled out.”
Almagro cited the Rwandan genocide as an example of a failure to act.
The idea of US intervention has been dismissed throughout the region. After Almagro’s comments, most of the members of the Lima Group, a 14-country bloc formed in 2017 to address the situation in Venezuela, said it rejected military action and reiterated a commitment to a “peaceful and negotiated” solution.
Despite Trump’s numerous references to military action, the nominee to lead US Southern Command, which oversees South America, said on Tuesday that no planning was underway for any kind of military option.
“We are not doing anything other than normal prudent planning that a combatant command would do to prepare for a range of contingencies,” Navy Vice Adm. Craig Faller said when asked during his Senate confirmation hearing if Trump or other US officials had suggested preparing military options.
Experts have said a multilateral intervention would likely be blocked by Russia and China, both Venezuelan allies, and that countries in the region are unlikely to want to contribute to an inter-regional force. Action by the US alone or with a few partners, even if limited in scope, could set off a prolonged period of low-level conflict, given political instability and rampant criminality present in Venezuela.
Stabilizing and developing the country would almost certainly be a long and expensive process.
Fernando Cutz, who was acting senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs on the National Security Council until earlier this year, said Monday that while he was in that job, the administration never discussed a military option, except for last-resort scenarios that would warrant a response, such as an attack on the US embassy or, he said, a “massacre.”
But, he said, the administration was willing to listen to parties in Venezuela, such as military leaders, who wanted to talk. (Reports surfaced earlier this year that US officials met with Venezuelans who wanted support for a coup, but the US declined to offer it.)
Cutz also noted the Lima Group’s statement specifically, saying the region needed to discuss what it is willing to do to resolve the crisis.
“I think we need to have solutions, not just more ‘no’s,'” Cutz said during an event at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. “And I think we need to sit down and actually think about a multilateral military option before we just knee-jerk say ‘no.'”