The drums of war are beating once again in the nation's capital. Many Republicans may privately curse the president's bizarre behavior and questionable judgment. Democrats may fret about the administration's incipient fascism. But the prospect of a war to topple a foreign government — in this case the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela — is all it takes to restore a sense of bipartisan comity in Washington. At last, something to make everyone feel good about themselves, united in the common cause of demonstrating our power and righteousness.
In reality, military intervention in the standoff in Venezuela will only display our hubris and incapacity to learn from mistakes.
Let's make one thing perfectly clear: Maduro's predecessor as president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, single-handedly wrecked the country's economy, and Maduro has made it far worse. The people of Venezuela would be better off if Maduro stepped down, allowing Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly, to take over as interim president, with elections to follow. But that doesn't mean that the United States should be placing itself in the role of orchestrating these events, especially if doing so requires the use of military force to remove Maduro and install Guaidó.
What happens inside Venezuela simply isn't our responsibility. The question that cries out for an answer is why so many Americans conclude otherwise.
Bad things happen in the world. Governments make mistakes, treat their citizens poorly, violate their rights, exacerbate their suffering. Everyone with a sense of moral decency and a capacity for empathy will lament this reality. But that doesn't mean that it's our place to use our immense military might to change it.
Why not? For one thing, because our government's singular responsibility is the well-being of Americans. It exceeds the capacity of any country, even one as wealthy and powerful as ours, to take on responsibility for the citizens of other nations — who live elsewhere, who are not members of our political community, who have no say in our political system, who contribute nothing in taxes or economic productivity to our government or country. The world is not a single political entity ruled by the American president and policed by the American military.
But even if you deny this and insist that what happens inside a country on another continent does place a moral obligation on the American government and armed forces, there remains the matter of whether acting on its basis will actually make things better for those who are suffering — and what the moral consequences of failure will be.
The fact is that the United States is extremely bad at this. Do we have the capacity to topple a foreign government? Yes, we certainly do. And we unquestionably love to do it. The hatred of tyrants is a very old American national trait. But what comes next? We easily overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan 17 years ago; the country remains a basket case. We easily overthrew Saddam Hussein in Iraq nearly 16 years ago; it ignited a civil war that tore the country apart, led to over 100,000 deaths, and destabilized an entire region. We easily overthrew the government of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya eight years ago; the country has been consumed by violence ever since.
How many times will the United States make the same mistake while refusing to learn any meaningful lesson at all? Deposing a government is relatively easy. Securing peace, preventing chaos, managing a transition to a functional government — one strong enough to maintain order but limited enough to be a meaningful improvement on the former regime — is extremely difficult. All of the evidence of recent history points toward it being a task that exceeds the capacity of the United States.
In the specific case of Venezuela, the more Guaidó is viewed as owing his power to American intervention, the more his political enemies will ensure that he's known as a puppet of the United States, undermining any attempt to establish his own legitimacy and increasing the likelihood that the Venezuelan military opts to take charge instead. Do we then act to overthrow the Venezuelan military? And if so, what comes next? American occupation? An attempt to place someone else in charge? Or do we instead grow bored and weary, blame the natives for their failure to receive the selfless American gift of freedom, and give up, leaving the country to descend into the anarchy we have bequeathed to so many places over the past two decades?
Have those itching for war done the hard thinking required to negotiate these exceedingly likely outcomes of American intervention? Nothing from the present or recent past gives us any reason to think so.
That's why there can be no obligation to intervene — because there cannot be a moral duty to make things worse.
So let's hope for the best in Venezuela but not suppose it's our responsibility to try and fix their problems for them. We will only end up implicating ourselves in the further suffering to follow.