President Donald Trump’s unexpected suggestion Friday that he might rely on military force to deal with Venezuela’s pressing political crisis was an astonishing statement that strained not only credulity but also the White House’s hard-won new friendships in Latin America.
“I’m not going to rule out a military option,” Trump declared to reporters in Bedminster, N.J. “This is our neighbor. 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.”
Flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, whose faces betrayed some worry, Trump mentioned potential military action unprompted, almost in passing. But his pronouncement will almost certainly not be taken so cavalierly by regional allies the White House had painstakingly and successfully wooed to its side on Venezuela.
By raising the specter of military involvement, Trump appeared to ignore Latin America’s years of weary experience with CIA-backed regime toppling. Countries in the region have not so easily forgotten.
And so, analysts uniformly agreed Friday night: Trump’s threat of an unpopular military action can only set back diplomatic efforts to isolate Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
“His temperate approach over the past few weeks has helped build a regional coalition that was very vocal in denouncing and putting pressure on the Venezuelan government,” said Christopher Sabatini, a Columbia University international relations and policy lecturer. “By sounding off now, he has really made it much more difficult for Latin American governments to adhere to what is seen as the U.S. position.
“He’s also, of course, tapped — I think unwittingly — into this deep, deep, legitimate worry and fear of U.S. intervention. This…