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'We need to know why': Lawmakers wary as Trump aides weigh military options for Venezuela

Deirdre Shesgreen

WASHINGTON – Talk of possible U.S. military action in Venezuela is prompting bipartisan concern in Congress, where Democrats and Republicans alike cautioned against a rush toward intervention amid escalating rhetoric from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton. 

After the U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido failed last week to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Pompeo said U.S. military action “is possible.” He and Bolton met last Friday with Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to discuss possible options. 

But U.S. intervention would be highly controversial and could spark a political backlash, in the United States and across the hemisphere. Maduro has said any U.S. military invasion would be “worse" than Vietnam – and many lawmakers, as well as Latin America experts, agree it could lead to a quagmire.

"What would our military’s mission be in Venezuela?” said Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee. “Would the administration push for our military to conduct regime change?”

The Marine Corps veteran has called for immediate congressional hearings on the issue and said he wants several “threshold questions” answered by President Donald Trump's top advisers. 

“Oftentimes military commitments destabilize situations as opposed to improving them,” Young told USA TODAY in an interview.

On Thursday, Trump denied a Washington Post report he is frustrated with Bolton's hard-line position on Venezuela and that Bolton was pushing him into a war he didn't want. 

“John’s very good. He has strong views on things which is okay," Trump told reporters on Thursday. "I’m the one who tempers him ... I have John Bolton and I have people who are a little more dovish than him.”

Any move by the Trump administration to send American forces to Venezuela would require congressional authorization, Young and other lawmakers said. That, in turn, would require Pompeo and others to make a compelling case to Congress and the American public that such a move is warranted.

And there seems to be little political appetite among lawmakers for approval of such a move.

“Venezuela is not a minor military engagement by any stretch of the imagination,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., told USA TODAY.  

Even some hawkish Republicans who have championed a U.S. military role in Venezuela seemed to shy away from a direct U.S. confrontation with Maduro’s military forces when pressed on the matter.

“It’s too early,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Tuesday. Just last week, Graham suggested the U.S. should deploy an aircraft carrier to Venezuela and seemed to criticize the Trump administration for putting too much focus on sanctions and diplomacy.

“Cuba, Russia send troops to prop Maduro up in Venezuela…….while we talk/sanction. Where is our aircraft carrier?” Graham tweeted on Friday.

This week, however, Graham seemed to back down. Military options should be “on the table,” he said on Tuesday, but “we should really be putting a lot of pressure on Cuba right now.” Cuba is a close ally of the Maduro regime. The Trump administration has accused the Cuban government of using its security and intelligence forces to help keep Maduro in power.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) questions witnesses during a committee hearing about Libya in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 25, 2017 in Washington, DC. Senators heard testimony from country specialists about the thousands of small and large factions that splinter politics and security today in Libya.

Other Republicans said U.S. military involvement in Venezuela, despite a strong desire to see Maduro step down, would only play into Maduro's hands.

"Direct U.S. military involvement risks allowing Maduro to externalize conflict, scapegoat his failures, and delegitimize the organic desire of Venezuelans to choose their own brighter destiny," Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said in an April 30th statement. "I trust and hope that the Trump Administration will continue to skillfully advance the cause of freedom in Latin America and throughout the world."

Young said that as much as he would like to see Maduro ousted, he's not sure if U.S. military involvement is the right way to achieve that goal.

“We have a brutal socialist regime in Venezuela that has caused unspeakable suffering among the Venezuelan populace,” Young said. But he’s worried about the possible consequences of U.S. military involvement in Venezuela – and unsettled by the escalating rhetoric from top Trump administration officials.

“The first step…is calling on the administration to explain their thinking for threatening military action in the press,” said Young, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “If hostilities are imminent, then we need to know why.”

Young said the committee's GOP chairman, Sen. James Risch of Idaho, shares his concerns and has promised to work on his request for hearings, although those might be closed-door sessions. 

After Friday's meeting with Pompeo and Bolton, Pentagon chief Shanahan did not directly answer a reporter's question about whether Venezuela poses a national security threat to the United States that would justify U.S. military intervention.

"Depends on the conditions," he responded. But Shanahan noted that Russia and other American foes have a presence in Venezuela, suggesting a broader geopolitical threat to the U.S.

He also declined to discuss specific military plans but said: “We have a comprehensive set of options tailored to certain conditions.”

If lawmakers are wary, it’s no wonder. Several Venezuela experts have said U.S. military intervention would be complicated at best, and disastrous at worst – comparable to the bloody, years-long conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

“It would not be quick” or easy, Rebecca Bill Chavez, a former assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March. It could require as many as 150,000 American troops “over a long period of time under conditions of asymmetrical warfare,” she said.

She and others noted that U.S. military personnel would confront not only Venezuelan military officials loyal to Maduro but also armed gangs in the country, known as colectivos, and other malevolent forces in the country.

Venezuela is one of the most dangerous countries in the world – a fact highlighted by Vice President Mike Pence in a speech at the State Department on Tuesday.

“Vicious gangs and the colectivos have turned the streets into war zones,” Pence said. “Venezuela now has the highest murder rate in the world,” with more than 70 homicides every day.

Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at Council on Foreign Relations, said the vast size and chaotic state of Venezuela make U.S. military intervention "in many ways unrealistic.”

“This is a country that’s twice the size of Iraq in terms of its geography” and as complicated, if not more so, in terms of its existing infrastructure and political dynamics, O'Neil said during a briefing on Venezuela earlier this year.

“Any force that would go in there to try to remove this government, you would also be embarking on a very vast nation-state building exercise that would last potentially for years,” she said.

Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican who has called for a U.S. military role in Venezuela, said the Trump administration should start by sending troops to the country on a humanitarian mission.

“There’s genocide going in Venezuela so we’ve got to do everything we can to stop it,” he said, referring to the massive food and medicine shortages that have prompted widespread hunger and death in the country.

But Scott demurred when asked what kind of military commitment that would require from the U.S., saying that was up to the Defense Department to determine. Asked about the complications of a military intervention, Scott said Venezuela is already in a dire situation comparable to Syria.

“We’re going to have a Syria here if we don’t get rid of Maduro,” he said. “It can’t be worse than this.”

Contributing: Christal Hayes and Tom Vanden Brook

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'We need to know why': Lawmakers wary as Trump aides weigh military options for Venezuela