U.S. policymakers have frequently failed to plan for what comes after the overthrow of a foreign government, but in the case of Venezuela the Trump administration and its allies failed to plan for the beginning:
Longtime observers, however, say the generals doubt the promises will be kept. This is a major reason why the revolution isn’t moving as quickly as some had hoped when Guaido electrified the world on Jan. 23 with his declaration. This has led to impatience and finger-pointing. U.S. policy makers and those around Guaido — as well as leaders in Brazil and Colombia — are eyeing one another and worrying about failure. Officials in each camp have said privately they assumed the others had a more developed strategy [bold mine-DL].
No one should have assumed that the Trump administration had a well-considered plan, but because the process leading up to the recognition of Guaido seemed less chaotic and dysfunctional than usual there seems to be the mistaken impression that U.S. officials aren’t just making things up as they go along. Administration officials probably thought they were seizing on an opportunity for a relatively easy foreign policy win, and they were being egged on by Marco Rubio and other hawks who had every incentive to minimize the difficulties and problems that this policy would face. There is an eerie similarity to the run-up to the Libyan intervention in the complete failure to plan ahead and the initial overestimation of the opposition’s capabilities. Let’s hope that any similarities with Libya end there.
One reason that the Venezuelan opposition doesn’t seem to have a “more developed strategy” is that the plan to install Guaido as interim president was made by only a handful of people without the knowledge of the rest of the opposition. The Wall Street Journal reported on this last week:
What appeared to be a carefully calibrated policy to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was actually a big gamble by a small group of opposition leaders acting on a hastily assembled plan.
The strategy marked a coup of sorts: this one within the country’s notoriously fractious opposition, which had been locked in debate over whether to negotiate with Mr. Maduro or take more direct action.
When Juan Guaidó declared himself Venezuela’s interim president on Jan. 23 in front of a crowd of 100,000 people under a broiling sun, some leading opposition figures had no idea he would do so, say people who work with Mr. Guaidó and other top leaders. That included a few standing alongside him. A stern look of shock crossed their faces. Some quietly left the stage.
“What the hell is going on?” one member of a group of politicians wrote to the others in a WhatsApp group chat. “How come we didn’t know about this.”
The plan was largely devised by a group of four opposition leaders—two in exile, one under house arrest and one barred from leaving the country.
Guaido and his allies valued speed and surprise over preparation, but because of that they don’t appear to have any idea what to do next. That doesn’t bode well for Venezuela in the coming months, and it helps explain why there have been so few defections of military officers to the opposition’s side:
In a country with more than 2,000 generals and admirals, only one top officer — who commands no troops — has pledged allegiance to Guaido.
There is usually a dangerous combination of hubris and failure to anticipate setbacks in every regime change policy, and this one is no exception. Again and again, we see the same arrogant, breezy assumption that regime change will be quick, easy, and relatively cheap, and we find that the regime changers never considered what they would do when things didn’t go according to their hastily-made, ill-conceived plan. Toppling an entrenched government is always going to be harder, take longer, and be more costly than anyone expects, and that is why it is something that the U.S. shouldn’t attempt unless it is absolutely necessary. As the standoff in Venezuela drags on, it will become increasingly clear that the U.S. should not have interfered in this crisis.