Over the weekend, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted out these images of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, whose regime was toppled in 2011 by a NATO-led operation in which the United States participated.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 24, 2019
Though the tweet contains no words, the senator was sending an unmistakable message to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whose control is slipping amid rising protests both within and without his country. The Lima group, an ad hoc consortium of a dozen Latin American countries and Canada, does not recognize Maduro as legitimate; about 30 countries (including the United States) have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president. Your fate, Maduro, implies Rubio, will be the same Gaddafi's.
Gaddafi was not merely killed in the fog of war. Footage exists of him being beaten and sodomized with a knife or bayonet before finally being shot to death. (Rubio also tweeted out a similar diptych of Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian strongman who was deposed by the United States in 1989 after a military invasion and died in a U.S. prison in 2017.)
Rubio's saber-rattling is deeply disturbing for a number of reasons. America's participation in the intervention that brought down Gaddafi was unconstitutional. It had nothing to do with actual defense of our country, and President Barack Obama didn't seek congressional authorization before committing the American military. Nor did he comply with the War Powers Act, which requires withdrawal of troops 60 to 90 days after an action begins if Congress doesn't authorize war after the fact. Instead, the Obama administration sent a report claiming that the president didn't need congressional authorization at all.
To his later semi-credit in 2016, Obama did acknowledge that the Libya adventure was the "worst mistake" of his foreign policy, although he based that assessment on his "failing to plan for the day after" rather his failure to comply with the Constitution. In this, Obama is distinct from Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state at the time, who called the intervention "smart power at its best." Back in 2011, Donald Trump also supported "a surgical strike" in Libya.
Today, Libya is, in one characteristic analysis, "a chaotic state":
The United Nations-backed government struggles to exert control over territory held by rival factions, intensifying geographical and political divisions between the East, West, and South. Terrorist groups and armed militias exploit the turmoil, using the nation as a base for radicalization and organized crime, and pose a threat to the region and beyond.
It's worth pointing out that in 2006, the United States restored full diplomatic relations with Libya and Gaddafi. After a series of American reprisals, Gaddafi had stopped sponsoring terrorism, dismantled his nuclear program, expelled Al Qaeda, paid reparations for Flight 103, and actively cooperated with U.S. intelligence. He remained a tyrant at home, but he did what America asked him to do internationally. Given all that, U.S. participation in the NATO operation that took him down sent a message to dictators that the United States is at best a fickle power (something similar can be said about the U.S. relationship with Egypt's Hosni Mubarak).
The Maduro regime is illegitimate and monstrous, and the world will be better off when it no longer exists. Three-quarters of Venezuelans reportedly lost 19 pounds in 2016, and the regime continues to block some humanitarian aid while seizing other shipments for its favorites. But that doesn't justify the United States, whose record with regime change in the 21st century is one of dismal and abject failure, threatening to do to Maduro what it helped to make happen against Gaddafi. Given the vexed history of U.S. intervention into Latin America, the more the United States takes a lead role in regime change, the more it undermines the legitimacy of the homegrown change that is already happening.
It's not just Rubio who is pushing for a more-aggressive approach that might include military intervention. Congressional Republicans are almost universally supporting regime change in Venezuela, and President Donald Trump leans that way too. He may have inveighed against endless war in his recent State of the Union Address, but he reportedly is interested in flexing military muscles in Venezuela. Axios reports:
His senior advisers universally support unseating Maduro. And people close to Trump say he takes a markedly different view of Venezuela than Middle Eastern war zones. He sees Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq as beyond help, a waste of American lives and money. Venezuela, in his view, is different: It's a neighbor, and a crisis there directly affects the U.S., via trade and migration. Trump thinks Venezuela should be rich and peaceful.
Last fall, Trump promised to "take care of Venezuela," a vague phrase that could mean anything, including military intervention. Just a few weeks ago, he said "it was an option" and National Security Adviser John Bolton, an unreconstructed hawk, was seen carrying a pad that had the line "5,000 troops to Colombia" written on it.
If the past decades have taught us anything, it's that military intervention is always on the table—and that it's better left there while other forces, especially those within a given country, play out.
Related: "What Called Venezuela's Collapse? Socialism."