Tensions in Venezuela are rising. On Sunday, the nation's President, Nicolas Maduro, held a gimmick election to replace the parliament with a new "constituent assembly." In response, street protests are becoming increasingly violent with each passing hour.
The U.S. must consider its diplomats. At present, while the families of diplomats have left Venezuela, the diplomats themselves remain.
There are three particular concerns. First, there's the threat posed by pro-Maduro militias. Known as the "colectivos," these armed gangs use motorcycles to move rapidly and gun down enemies of the regime. Their benefit to Maduro is simple: they can do what he doesn't want to be seen doing. Most notably, murdering political opponents. As looming U.S. sanctions cause tensions to increase, Maduro might view the gangs as a deniable way to attack U.S. forces.
To counter this threat, Trump should state plainly and unequivocally that he will hold Maduro personally responsible for colectivo attacks on U.S. interests.
Second, there's the potential that Maduro takes action himself. While this seems unlikely, as conditions in Venezuela continue to deteriorate, Maduro may gamble on attacking U.S. interests. Remember, Maduro's Chavista wing of Venezuelan politics is deeply anti-American. Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, frequently threatened U.S. interests in the knowledge that it would excite his delusional followers. The Venezuela government has recently doubled down on this approach. In June, Venezuela's then-foreign minister stated, "I think the only way [the Americans] can impose their will is with their Marines, who would be met with a swift response ... should they dare."
Again, to meet this challenge, Trump should warn that any regime attacks on U.S. personnel will meet military retaliation against the regime. He should also remind the Maduro administration what happened in Panama, in December 1989. There, after four U.S. military personnel were attacked by Panamanian forces, President George W. Bush ordered an invasion to overthrow the regime of Manuel Noriega. Barely a month later, Noriega was deposed and his military crushed.
Third, there's the significant risk that Venezuela may collapse. If anarchy follows, U.S. diplomats could be at the mercy of roving criminal gangs.
Preparing for this eventuality, Trump should instruct the Pentagon to stage Marine Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Teams (FAST) in Southern Command's area of operation. FAST are specifically trained for the reinforcement of Marine security garrisons at U.S. diplomatic outposts, but they do not constitute an invasion level force. The distinction is important in that were a larger U.S. military force openly deployed near Venezuela, it might offer Maduro a propaganda victory. While one or two FAST companies could not repel an attack by Venezuelan military forces, they could repel rioters as the embassy was evacuated.
Finally, the U.S. should deploy the USS Wasp (currently somewhere in the Atlantic) to the Caribbean or central Atlantic. Again, doing so would balance the need to avoid giving Maduro a propaganda coup, with a proximate capability to protect U.S. interests. The Wasp carries a Marine Expeditionary Unit of considerable combat power. It could evacuate thousands, and it is well-placed to deal with all but the most serious of eventualities.
Hopefully none of the above will come to pass. But Trump can't assume that. Correspondingly, the president should pick up the phone to Defense Secretary Mattis and get ahead of this issue.