Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that all U.S. personnel would be withdrawn from the embassy in Caracas this week notes that the decision “reflects the deteriorating situation in Venezuela” and that the presence of those diplomats “has become a constraint on U.S. policy.” That last clause has prompted some speculation that military action is now more likely - but in this case, it’s evidence of the opposite.
Granted, the situation is tense. Diplomats loyal to Nicolas Maduro, the man most of the Western Hemisphere no longer recognizes as Venezuela’s leader, have accused the U.S. of arming defectors across the border in Colombia. Maduro himself blames the failure of his country’s decrepit electricity grid on a U.S. cyberattack. President Donald Trump and his top aides repeat the line that “all options” remain on the table. Meanwhile, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has warned that any military action “from the outside” would be unacceptable.
The most likely explanation for the removal of diplomats, however, is simply prudence. They could become “a trip wire for potential action,” said Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Council of the Americas. U.S. diplomats could be targeted by armed Maduro loyalists, Farnsworth told me, almost certainly prompting a U.S. military response.
The notion that the U.S. does not want to intervene is not mere speculation. Earlier this month, Russian propaganda outlets released a recording of Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy for the crisis in Venezuela, that shows how unlikely intervention is. Abrams was speaking to Russian comedians posing as Swiss officials, but there is no reason to doubt his comments.
In the conversation, Abrams acknowledged a public diplomacy strategy aimed at making the Venezuelan military nervous by not ruling out military action. Such ambiguity can sometimes be useful: On Tuesday, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor announced an investigation into the country’s interim president, Juan Guaido, for his role in sabotaging the country’s electric grid. It’s not clear what will become of the probe - but it’s definitely in the interests of the U.S. and the opposition for Maduro to have to think twice about using the investigation to harm Guaido. This is true regardless of whether the U.S. has any plans to intervene militarily.
But Abrams went on to stress that there are no such plans unless Maduro does something “completely crazy” such as attack the U.S. embassy. When asked about military action again last week at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Abrams said much the same thing: “It is certainly not desirable and it is not the path the administration is taking.”
It’s always possible that Trump will change his mind. But deciding to intervene would be out of character for him. This is a president, remember, who is currently taking on the Pentagon over plans to remove U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan. He likes to brag about ending wars, not starting them.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.