There are non-kinetic ways the US military can force Maduro’s hand without deploying mass forces, occupying Caracas or risking conflict escalation.
The U.S. government has wavered on what to do in Venezuela. Some have called for Washington to butt out and let things take their course. Others have called for a more direct military intervention to depose of a despotic regime. The result is a kind of eyeball-to-eyeball paralysis, with neither the Venezuelan regime nor Washington willing to blink first.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó is considering asking the US military to get more involved. Yet what should this look like? Arguably, the White House’s jingoistic rhetoric and diplomatic half-measures have only strengthened President Nicholas Maduro’s hand, as he consolidates power, rallies volunteers into his armed forces and thumbs his nose at Washington. Not to mention there would be very little American appetite for a large military intervention, and Venezuelans appear to be dead-set against it. Operationally it would be difficult, too; Venezuela is twice the size of Iraq.
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However, there are non-kinetic ways the US military can force Maduro’s hand without deploying mass forces, occupying Caracas or risking conflict escalation. How? By supporting the opposition with nonviolent actions. The US military is uniquely positioned to assist on this front, given what it does best: strategic planning.
Social movements are notoriously decentralized, which makes power more diffuse yet consensus difficult. That works fine in Silicon Valley conference rooms, but is less compatible in downtown squares in Kiev or Cairo. “[N]onviolence isn’t magic,” as Daniel Fermin notes. “It can fail. It needs discipline, organization, clear goals, and unity of purpose.” A new book by Ivan Marovic, “The Path of Most Resistance,” echoes this point. The former Serbian youth campaigner provides a how-to manual for why nonviolent resistance needs to embrace the strategy and tactics more commonly employed by the military.
Nonviolent resistance works
How would it work? US special forces, next door in Colombia to assist that country’s armed forces, would train the Venezuelan opposition in best practices of nonviolent resistance. This includes teaching tactics of dispersal, evading tear gas, erecting barricades, and maintaining command and control in the face of government repression. Contrary to public perception, the U.S. military actually has a decent track record in the region. In Colombia, U.S. assistance and support helped repair its military’s poor human rights record, paving the way for peace.
But can nonviolent resistance work? A new report by the Joint Special Operations University on Support to Resistance (STR) operations suggests it can. The recent peaceful overthrows of authoritarians in Sudan and Algeria provides further proof of its effectiveness. Despite the doom-and-gloom headlines on authoritarianism, nonviolent actions are arguably as important as ever.
Yet it should be emphasized why civil resistance works. It is a strategy based on pragmatism, not moral considerations. That is, militaries should support such strategies because of their operational effectiveness, not out of loftier principles.
How do they work? First, by providing the opposition with tools so they can peacefully unseat the regime themselves, giving locals greater ownership of the process and a stronger voice in a post-Maduro Venezuela. Second, by eroding a regime’s sources of political power. Larger numbers of mobilized citizens lead to enhanced resilience. Nonviolent disruptions shift elites’ and officers’ loyalties that undergird Maduro’s repressive regime. According to political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, security force defections increase the chance of success by nearly 60%.
Military solution without the violence
Nonviolent approaches are not without challenges. The presence of violent “radical flanks” can derail efforts at peaceful dialogue. During Ukraine’s Euro-Maidan Revolution in 2013-2014, for example, the regime of Viktor Yanukovych unleashed thugs, so-called titushky, to goad the peaceful protestors to turn violent. Likewise, an estimated 100,000 Venezuelans are armed and loosely organized into “colectivos” and likely to instigate violence if Maduro’s regime collapses. There is a threat the crisis turns more violent, which would undermine the opposition’s legitimacy.
Venezuela is a laboratory of sorts for a new kind of military intervention. While Maduro’s ouster may not usher in a thriving democracy overnight, the main goal at this stage is to avoid an all-out civil war. The lesson from places like Syria, Yemen and Ukraine is that violence only begets violence. Worse, it hardens the regime’s base of elite and military supporters. Nor would a war stay contained to Venezuela’s borders, as fighters spill into Colombia and risk destabilizing a country finally at peace.
The U.S. often frames its interventions as go-big-or-go-home choices, yet there are less heavy-handed ways in which the US can disrupt, coerce and overthrow regimes without resorting to costly Iraq-style occupations or Bay of Pigs-style invasions. Venezuela’s neighbors have wisely called for a collective answer rather than a “unilateral military option.” There is still a glimmer of hope for a nonviolent resolution to the crisis. A military solution does not have to mean war in Venezuela.
Lionel Beehner is an assistant professor and director of research at West Point’s Modern War Institute.
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