If the scribbled notes on national-security adviser John Bolton’s legal pad are to be believed, the Trump administration is seriously considering a sizeable deployment of American military forces to South America as it ratchets up pressure on embattled Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro to step down from power.
President Trump has already recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s rightful president, and is instituting sanctions against a state-run oil company in an effort to squeeze Maduro’s supporters. Meanwhile, influential voices in Washington who have been advocating regime change in Venezuela for decades are finding allies and sympathizers in Trump’s inner circle.
The United States Congress, which is given the power to declare war by Article I Section 8 of the Constitution, has lately been distracted by the government shutdown and various investigations of Trump. But if the administration attempts to intervene militarily in the Venezuela crisis, lawmakers must immediately assert their constitutional authority and prevent such an intervention.
The situation in Venezuela is heartbreaking and frustrating, as the poisoned fruits of socialist despotism are now being reaped. It is common for those in the Washington foreign-policy establishment to respond to the destabilization of an unfriendly dictator or threats of civil war in a foreign country by calling for U.S. action, imagining a benevolent American intervention to bring about the liberation of the downtrodden or the end of a humanitarian crisis. But the results of recent interventions in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have proven less than ideal for Americans and those countries, and there is little reason to be more optimistic about a military adventure in Venezuela.
As Benjamin Denison has pointed out in the Washington Post, regime-change efforts in Latin America have a poor track record of success, and academic research shows that any military intervention in Venezuela would likely result in a costly long-term occupation for the United States. What’s more, as tragic as the failed policies of the Chavez and Maduro regimes have been for the people of Venezuela, the country poses no serious economic or national-security threat to the U.S.
The benefits of empowering Congress to decide when the United States goes to war were spelled out by the drafters of our Constitution at the Founding. The Founders were rightly concerned about the potential for abuse of the war-making power if it was vested in the commander-in-chief.
In Federalist No. 69, Alexander Hamilton compared the powers of the president with those of the British monarch in order to relieve concerns about an all-powerful executive. “It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first General and admiral of the Confederacy,” he wrote, “while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies, all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature.”
During the Constitutional Convention, Virginia’s George Mason put it more bluntly, declaring that he was “against giving the power of war to the executive” because the president “is not to be trusted with it.” Elbridge Gerry, who went on to serve as vice president, said he “never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the executive to declare war.”
Congress has a responsibility to our republic to assert and defend its constitutional powers over war-making, and it should prepare to do so as the Trump administration’s response to the Venezuelan crisis grows more and more aggressive.